Rising floodwaters shut down I-5, prompt thousands to flee

Rising floodwaters shut down I-5, prompt thousands to flee
ORTING, Wash. -- More than 30,000 people were told to leave their flood-endangered homes in Western Washington on Wednesday as rain and high winds lashed much of the state, causing widespread avalanches, mudslides and high water that could reach record levels.

Rising waters prompted state highway crews to close a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5 around Chehalis on Wednesday evening, and DOT officials didn't expect to reopen the road on Thursday.

"This is going to be a memorable flood event," said Andy Haner, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Seattle.

Hydrologists are predicting record flood levels on the Chehalis, Cowlitz, Puyallup, Stillaguamish and Carbon rivers. These are the same areas where massive flooding in December 2007 cut off towns for days and caused millions in damage.

In Orting, residents were urged to evacuate as waters rise on the Carbon River and South Prairie Creek. Many homes in the area were already flooded and roads had been cut off by Wednesday evening.

"They expect the town of Orting to go under water," Pierce County sheriff's Detective Ed Troyer said, adding that the flooding could be the worst in more than a decade.

Police went door-to-door asking residents to leave, and automated phone messages with the evacuation request were also sent out. Fire trucks rolled through with loudspeakers, advising everyone to leave the town and surrounding valley, home to about 26,000 people.

At least three people were rescued by boat Wednesday morning after being trapped by high water outside Orting. Fire and rescue personnel from several agencies launched at least two small motorboats to check an area where neighbors said about two dozen people live.

Diane Knowles of Eatonville said the first three to be taken to safety were her 81-year-old father-in-law and her brother- and sister-in law, who in past flooding arranged for the family to bring rescue boats.

"It came up so fast this time, there wasn't really time to think about it," she said.

Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma declared a civil emergency for the city of about 200,000, largely because of Puyallup River flooding risks to the city's wastewater treatment plant.

Tacoma Power said if water levels rise high enough to pose a threat of extensive damage to the utility's electrical system, it would shut off electrical service with little or no notice. However, the utility did not anticipate having to do so Wednesday night.

The mayor of Fife also declared a state of emergency and asked citizens working and living south of Interstate 5 to begin voluntary evacuation. Mayor Barry Johnson urged displaced residents to seek higher ground by 5 p.m. while officials look for a temporary shelter.

Members of the Puyallup Tribe were urged to respond to the Fife Emerald Queen Casino.

Floodwaters continued to rise through the day, and firefighters throughout the region used boats, hovercraft and 4x4 vehicles to evacuate people trapped by rising rivers.

Amtrak passenger train service out of Seattle was suspended through Saturday due to mudslides.

An avalanche caused significant damage to both the Snoqualmie Ski report and two homes nearby. The slide occurred late Wednesday morning at the 140 East Base area of the Snoqualmie Pass Ski area, the Washington State Patrol reported. Two homes at Chamonix Place near Hyak were also hit by the slide.

Norm Cravens was sitting inside his home when the slide came charging at him.

"I'm in my 80's and I tell ya, I've seen weather like this before. Never seen a slide like this at Hyak before, but I've seen weather like this before," he said.

The debris field spanned eight houses, and the two homes that were hit suffered an estimated $500,000 in damage. Two people were treated for minor injuries. The State Patrol reported there is major damage to the actual ski area, and State Route 906 was also washed out in the area.

Officials planned to close the Nisqually entrance to Mount Rainier National Park Wednesday evening as a precautionary measure against flooding.

Over in Skagit County, a mudslide sent a house in Concrete down the hillside into the downtown area near the intersection of Dillard and Division.

Diane Bergsma, 66, said she was sitting in her home with her two dogs on her lap, next to a roaring fire in her fireplace when the hillside gave way.

"It felt like an earthquake," she said. "I thought I was dead."

The slide sent her, her dogs, and her home along a wave of mud and water about 15 feet over then 20 feet down to the valley below and onto her son's car. Bergsma was not hurt, but her home and everything she owned inside was destroyed. She said she did not have insurance.

Many school districts throughout the region have closed or altered bus routes due to flooding, and some that started on time are sent students home early (see full schools list).

The roads were no better for commuters, who were met Wednesday morning with standing water on roadways, mudslides, and road closures that are changing minute by minute. (Check the latest road alerts for King County, Snohomish County, Skagit County, Thurston County Whatcom County, and Lewis County.)

With the major highway passes in the Cascades closed by avalanche danger, Hammond said it looks as if traffic to Western Washington will be cut off if I-5 is shut down. She called it the "worst of the worst" situation.

In Lewis County, police said the town of Morton was cut off by flooding, and firefighters worked to evacuate residents trapped by floodwaters.

On Wednesday local business owners stacked up sandbags, hoping the floodwaters won't do as much damage as the last time they swept through.

"We just didn't think we'd go through it the first time and certainly not again," said Wendy Williams of the Chehalis Quizno's shop.

In Clallam County, two state troopers were trapped on State Route 112 for more than 12 hours after the road was cut off by water. The two troopers went to the area about 45 miles west of Port Angeles to help a driver who was stuck, but water covered the road before they were able to leave. They were finally able to get out just before 11 a.m. Wednesday.

King County emergency officials said the Tolt River was running at historically high levels Wednesday afternoon -- the highest levels seen since the river was dammed in the 1960s.

State emergency officials said voluntary evacuations were recommended for Snoqualmie, and for the southwest Washington cities of Naselle, Packwood and Randle.

Stranded cars and water rescues were clogging streets in eastern King County. Even residents in Snoqualmie, who are flood veterans, were caught off-guard by the speed of the rising river.

The Snoqualmie River at Carnation, in the rural Snoqualmie Valley, was measured at 61.3 feet Thursday night, 7.3 feet above flood stage and a record for measurements kept since 1932, weather service meteorologist Jay Albrecht said.

Emergency officials in Carnation warned they would not be able to reach residents between NE 32nd and SE 3rd east of the Snoqualmie River until floodwaters recede.

On Wednesday volunteers gathered at a city park to stuff sandbags for residents to protect their homes.

Bob Verity and his family got the warning to evacuate early Wednesday morning. They tried to drive out, but it was already too late; the water was already up to their waists. The family couldn't walk out as Verity's wife suffers from diabetes and has an artificial leg.

"We needed to get her out of the house. There is no way she can stand in water. And we're not flooded in the house, thank God, but it's getting close," Verity said.

The family had to wait for rescuers to find a boat and pull them to safety.

Rachel Myers stood across a flooded parking lot from her home and waited for her father to pick her up in a drift boat. She said her family has lived in the house since her great-grandmother built it, but they've decided this will be their last winter there.

"With flood after flood, it just gets more ruined every time," Myers said.

Officials in Whatcom County declared an emergency to help deal with flooded roads and mudslides.

Police Lt. Rick Sucee said small creeks are now rivers and ditches are overflowing. He said mudslides have hit at least three homes and left been left in 4 feet of mud. Some slides were in the Acme area where water has closed Highway 9. The Mount Baker Highway also is closed.

Sucee said the main street in Bellingham, Meridian, was covered with water. And water was up to the doors of businesses on Iowa Street, the city's auto row. There are no reports of injuries.

Whatcom County health officials have issued a boil order for residents who obtain their drinking water directly from Lake Whatcom, Lake Samish, Cain Lake or other surface water sources other than the public water supply. These residents are urged to boil their water for one minute prior to consumption until further notice.

Heavy snow and avalanche danger in the mountains has forced the closure of Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass, and Stevens Pass has been closed since Tuesday afternoon.

Flood warnings are in effect for several rivers, meaning flooding is occurring or imminent. Here are the forecasts for those rivers currently on Flood Warning. All others remain on Flood Watch. (Updated 10:55 p.m. Wednesday)

Forecasted To Reach Record Crest:

Carbon at Fairfax (Near Record)
Chehalis near Grand Mound.
Chehalis at Centralia.
Cowlitz at Randle
Deschutes near Rainier
Newaukum near Chehalis
Snoqualmie near Carnation
Stillaguamish at Arlington

Major Flooding Forecast:

Bogachiel near La Push
Cedar near Landsburg
Cowlitz at Packwood
Chehalis at Porter
Issaquah Creek at Issaquah
Nisqually near National
Puyallup near Orting
Puyallup at Puyallup
Satsop near Satsop
Skokomish near Potlatch
Snohomish near Monroe
Snohomish near Snohomish
Snoqualmie near the Falls
Stillaguamish (North fork near Arlington)
Tolt near Carnation

Moderate Flooding Forecast:

Nooksack (S. Fork at Saxon Bridge)
Wynoochee near Montesano
Nooksack at N. Cedarville
Skagit near Concrete
Skagit near Mount Vernon
Skykomish at Gold Bar
Stillaguamish (S. Fork near Granite Falls)

Minor Flooding Forecast:

Cedar near Renton
Chehalis near Doty
Cowlitz below Mayfield Dam
Nisqually at McKenna

Storm totals could reach 10-20 inches in the Olympics, and 5-15 inches in the Cascades. Most of the intense rain that had been focusing north of I-90 Tuesday and Tuesday night is shifting to the areas south of I-90 for Wednesday into Thursday, but rain will continue to fall across the entire area.

Landslide Risk Is Considerable

The heavy rain, combined with the soaking effect of the recent and long-lasting dense snowpack, has really saturated soils. Thus, the risk for landslides is considerable for the rest of this week. Those who live on steep hills or near cliffs should monitor the surrounding area for signs of a slide. The Rain Shadow has helped mitigate the risk in Seattle and Everett proper, but outside this areas, risk remains high.

Also, those who have rail travel plans should plan for potential delays as if a slide blocks a rail track, service will be automatically suspended for 48 hours.

Avalanche Danger Extreme in Mountains

The Cascades have seen several feet of snow in the past few days, and now adding rain on top of that snowpack will make for a very unstable situation.

An AVALANCHE WARNING is in effect for the Cascades. Backcountry hiking or travel is extremely discouraged, and mountain pass highways could face continuing occasional closures for avalanche control.

However, ski resorts remain open and safe as the ski runs are constantly monitored and controlled to mitigate any potential avalanches. But going into any out of bounds area or ignoring warning signs and skiing in marked off areas is extremely risky.

Current Weather Information:

General Flooding Information:

What is a "Pineapple Express"?

The "Pineapple Express" is when we have a weather system that has its origins from the Hawaiian tropics (Get it? 'Pineapple' for Hawaii? Who said weathermen don't have a sense of humor?)

You can usually see it on a satellite photo, where the band of rainfall stretches from the Pacific Northwest all the way southwest to near Hawaii.

These tend to be the wettest-type of storms we get around here -- bringing between 1-2" of rain per day for Seattle and much more near the mountains -- as it has an abundance of warm, tropical moisture.

It also brings high potential for flooding, as the warm air tends to raise snow levels quite high around here. That has two compounding effects:

1) It means precipitation falls as rain instead of snow in the mountains, increasing the run-off into the local rivers.

2) It will also begin to melt the snow at lower mountains altitudes, adding even more liquid water into the mix.

Why Is The Seattle/North Sound Area Getting Less Rain?

Those of you from about Seattle north to Everett must be wondering how in the world we're talking about extreme flooding when the roads around town are barely damp.

In the 24 hour period between 10 a.m. Tuesday and 10 a.m. Wednesday, Tacoma has had 2.53" of rain, while Sea-Tac Airport had 1.51" of rain.

Everett? Just 0.13".

That is due to the Olympic Rain Shadow, which we are borrowing from Sequim this week. You can find more information on this in my weather blog.

When Do We Dry Out?

The rain should taper off as we get into the midday hours Thursday. It then looks like Mother Nature finally finds that "happy medium" as we go dry for a few days, with near normal temperatures.

Better late than never!

Specific River Flooding Information and Forecasts:

Bogachiel near La Push
Carbon at Fairfax
Cedar near Landsburg
Cedar near Renton
Chehalis at Centralia.
Chehalis near Grand Mound.
Cowlitz at Packwood
Cowlitz at Randle
Deschutes near Rainier
Newaukum near Chehalis
Nisqually near National
Nooksack at Ferndale
Nooksack at N. Cedarville
Nooksack (S. Fork at Saxon Bridge)
Puyallup near Orting
Puyallup at Puyallup
Satsop near Satsop
Skagit near Concrete
Skagit near Mount Vernon
Skokomish near Potlatch
Skykomish at Gold Bar
Snohomish near Monroe
Snohomish near Snohomish
Snoqualmie near the Falls
Snoqualmie near Carnation
Stillaguamish at Arlington
Stillaguamish (North fork near Arlington)
Stillaguamish (S. Fork near Granite Falls)
Tolt near Carnation

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.