Rain slows, but flooding continues across W. Washington

Rain slows, but flooding continues across W. Washington »Play Video
Flooded homes, fields, and roads are shown from the air Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009 near Chehalis, Wash.
Floods, mudslides and avalanches in the Pacific Northwest kept tens of thousands of people from their homes Thursday, brought most freight trains to a standstill and stranded hundreds of trucks along the major highways that link Puget Sound's busy ports with markets around the country.

The flooding - some of the worst on record in Washington state - was touched off by a combination of heavy rain of 6 inches or more and a warm spell in the mid-40s that rapidly melted the snow in the Cascade Mountains.

More than 30,000 people were urged to leave their flood-endangered homes, and emergency crews are still scrambling to assist those trapped in flooded neighborhoods. Some rivers had crested at record levels and others were still rising.

A 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5, the state's major north-south freeway, was shut down between Olympia and the Oregon line, with one section area under 3 feet of water. Avalanches closed I-90, which cuts east from Seattle through the Cascades, along with the two other routes through the mountains. Amtrak service and most freight trains were stopped as well.

But after 24 hours cut off from the rest of the nation by flooded and damaged roads and railways, northwestern Washington state finally was connected by a single lifeline - two-lane Highway 2 across Stevens Pass - on Thursday afternoon.

Officials could not say exactly when other major arterials might reopen.

I-5 at Chehalis, where floodwaters several feet deep covered a 20-mile stretch of the main north-south arterial in Western Washington, could be closed for up to four days, said State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond.

She said the flooding is similar to the December 2007 flood that caused a four-day blockage on the freeway. Crews on the scene said the water over I-5 is still rising at nearly one foot per hour. Water was also partially covering the southbound lanes of I-5 in Fife, just north of Tacoma, blocking two right lanes.

Interstate 90 remained closed across Snoqualmie Pass by the risk of avalanches and mudslides, and the state Department of Transportation said it would not reopen on Thursday, as originally planned.

Nearly 40,000 drivers - including 7,000 trucks - cross Washington's Cascade Mountains each day, and most travel on I-90, the main east-west route across the state.

Hundreds of truckers pulled their rigs off onto the shoulders or packed truck stops as the bad weather bottled up nearly all freight in and around Seattle, costing the economy untold millions of dollars of day.

"You can't go north, you can't go east, you can't go south. What are my options?" said Jon Amerman, a trucker from White Hall, Mont., who had planned to head east to Yakima to pick up apples after delivering a load of goods to Seattle. He figured his company was losing more than $1,000 a day every day that he was idle.

All other mountain passes remain closed as well, with the single exception of Highway 2, leaving that as the only option for leaving northwestern Washington except by aircraft or by heading north through Canada.

Amtrak passenger train service out of Seattle was suspended due to mudslides, the company said in a news release.

Many school districts were again forced to close or delay classes due to flooded roads (see full schools list).

Though the pounding rain that melted mountain snow and caused the flooding eased Thursday, flood warnings remained in effect for 14 counties in Western Washington and seven on the state's east side. The National Weather Service further warned that rain-soaked hillsides were at a high risk for landslides.

"It's right up there with some of our most memorable flood events," National Weather Service forecaster Doug McDonnal said Thursday. "The thing that's kind of amazing in the past few years is how many flood episodes we've had."

Hammond said when the Chehalis River crests Thursday night, officials expect water to be 10 feet deep over Interstate 5. After the water starts falling, crews plan to use pumps and breach a levy to help the water drain out.

I-5 through Lewis County typically is used by nearly 55,000 drivers each day, with 10,000 of those being trucks.

The state has 1,200 DOT crew members out working to clear area roads.

Highway officials abandoned plans to get one main east-west route over the mountains open sometime Thursday, due to the danger from mudslides and avalanches.

Crews struggled to reopen highways, especially those leading to communities cut off by the flooding and avalanches.

Orting residents were allowed to return to their homes on Thursday to survey the damage.

"What a difference 24 hours makes," said Orting Police Chief Bill Drake.

Jamie Hicks used five pumps to try to clear the 2½ feet of water from his house, about 50 yards from the swollen Puyallup River.

"We're veterans at this," Hicks said as his son rowed a boat in front of the house. "You just pump it out."

In Snohomish, about 30 miles north of Seattle, a crowd watched as Robert Bishop and his roommates were rescued by boat from their two-story duplex. The home close to the Pilchuk River was nearly half underwater.

"I thought it was fine, but it went higher than I thought," said Bishop, 48, who waited out previous floods. "It was very scary."

In Stanwood, gravel was brought in by the truckload and volunteers, young and old, filled and stacked sandbags in a race against time after a dike near the city's waste management broke.

The Army Corp of Engineers is working to repair the breach, and residents are hoping their levee will hold.

"The whole valley could be flooded if the levees break. I've seen that happen before," said Bill Elliott.

Evacuation was recommended for some 50 Ebey Island residents on Thursday night due to a breach in the Ebey Island Slough Dike. The breach, which was 20 feet by 5 feet, was located on the east side of the Snohomish River, about a half mile south of Highway 2.

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

No serious injuries were reported.

"I think we're seeing an all-timer, or as bad as anyone has seen," said Rob Harper, a spokesman for the state Division of Emergency Management. "We just haven't seen this extent of flooding."

Fire trucks rolled through Orting on Wednesday, about 10 miles southeast of Tacoma, with loudspeakers advising everyone to leave the town and surrounding valley, home to about 26,000 people. Sandbags were placed around many downtown homes and businesses as the Puyallup River neared record levels.

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

Concern in Pierce County was shifting Thursday to the stability of levies and debris-damaged bridges as flooding receded along the Puyallup and other rivers, said Barb Nelson, an emergency management spokeswoman.

"I feel so sorry for those people," she said, adding, "We're having these 100-year floods every year now."

State emergency officials said voluntary evacuations were recommended for Snoqualmie, a riverside town 25 miles east of Seattle, and for the southwest Washington cities of Naselle, Packwood and Randle.

The Snoqualmie River at Carnation, in the rural Snoqualmie Valley, was measured at 61.55 feet at 4 a.m. Thursday, more than 7 feet above flood stage and a record for measurements kept since 1932.

Members of the National Guard were called out to Carnation on Thursday to help crews respond to emergencies as many of the homes remained isolated by floodwaters.

Several communities in east King County flooded, forcing people onto boats as streets in Snoqualmie and Duvall were submerged. High water early Thursday closed Highway 203 in East King County, cutting the last remaining route to the cities of Carnation and Duvall. Much of Snoqualmie was isolated by flooded roads.

In Snoqualmie, kayakers paddled in the street as city officials urged residents in the flood plain of the Snoqualmie River to leave before they became trapped.

Rachel Myers stood across a flooded parking lot from her home and waited for her father to pick her up in a 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.

On the mountain passes, crews are coping with huge amounts of snow and rain, and an avalanche of snow and mud about 100 yards wide damaged some weekend recreation homes in the Hyak area east of Snoqualmie Pass.

Chris Caviezel, who has lived at Snoqualmie Pass for about seven years, said conditions were the worst he has seen.

"We're getting avalanches and we're being flooded," he said.

In flooded towns, police and firefighters used boats and hovercraft to reach stranded residents, and a Coast Guard helicopter rescued two stranded people in Morton, in southwest Washington's Lewis County.

In Concrete, 70 miles northeast of Seattle, a 66-year-old woman was rescued after being trapped briefly in a house that was hit by a mudslide and collapsed.

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

In Grays Harbor County, sheriff's deputies rescued several people from flooding homes. Officials issued a voluntary evacuation notice for people living near rivers, including the swollen Chehalis.

"We don't want to create panic, but we don't want people that live near the river to procrastinate and have to be rescued," Lynn O'Connor, public information officer for the county's Department of Emergency Management, told the Aberdeen Daily World.

In central Washington, Kittitas County was cut off from access to the west by flooding and slides in the Cascades. Emergency services officials said no serious injuries had been reported, but mudslides and avalanches damaged a number of homes and condominiums.

Flood evacuations included about 256 people in west Ellensburg and lesser numbers in low-lying areas about 10 miles west of Cle Elum and three miles east of Cle Elum, where some drivers were reported stranded in their vehicles.

What's next?

The soaking rains have come to an end as the storm has pushed off to the east. A weak trough of low pressure will move through Thursday morning, bringing some scattered light showers through the early afternoon, with the exception of a Convergence Zone roaming between northern King and southern Skagit County, keeping some light rain going there.

We'll then dry out as we get into the afternoon, and stay dry until Saturday evening.

Up in the mountains, more moisture will fall, but snow levels will be dropping to around 3,000 feet by late morning, meaning it'll mostly fall as snow -- even at pass level.

That will keep more water from running into the rivers, but make driving a challenge, especially since it'll now be the primary route between Seattle and Portland with I-5 closed.

A Winter Weather Advisory is in effect until 6 p.m. Thursday for as much as 6-11 inches of new snow, especially between Stevens and Snoqualmie Pass.

That means if crews do manage to reopen the passes today, expect winter driving conditions. Avalanche danger remains extreme, and frequent pass closures for avalanche control are likely.

Record river flooding

Flood waters are expected to near or reach record stages along the Stillaguamish near Arlington, the Snoqualmie River near Carnation, the Skookumchuck near Centralia, the Newaukum near Chehalis, and the Chehalis River near Centralia. In fact, the Chehalis River is expected to reach a similar height to the floods of December, 2007.

Major flooding is occurring on several other rivers, including the Skokomish, Snohomish, Tolt, Cedar, Nisqually, Cowlitz, as well as Issaquah Creek.

You can find a specific river forecast from the list of links at the bottom of this story.

Here are some of the incredible rainfall totals from between 4 a.m. Tuesday to 4 a.m. Thursday:

First the major cities:

  • Shelton: 7.29"
  • Olympia: 6.21"
  • Forks: 5.25"
  • Gig Harbor: 5.05"
  • Hoquiam: 4.80"
  • Tacoma: 4.63"
  • Seattle (Sea-Tac): 3.47"
  • Bellingham: 3.06"
  • Bremerton: 2.80"
  • Kelso: 2.75"
  • Renton: 2.51"
  • Port Angeles: 1.94"
  • Seattle (Boeing Field): 1.94"
  • Friday Harbor: 1.61"
  • Oak Harbor: 1.54"
  • Everett: 1.04"

And here are some from the rain gauges along rivers and in the mountains:

  • Quinalt: 16.46"
  • Howard Hanson Reservoir: 14.93"
  • Snoqualmie Pass: 11.00"
  • Snoqualmie River/South Fork: 10.75"
  • National: 9.98"
  • Marblemount: 9.90"
  • Humptulips: 9.20"
  • Hoh Ranger Station: 8.80"
  • Verlot Ranger Station: 8.10"
  • Paradise Ranger Station: 7.82"
  • Baker Lake: 7.30"
  • Skykomish area: 7.20"
  • Packwood: 6.99"
  • Greenwater: 6.91"
  • Mount Baker: 6.47"
  • Chehalis R (South Fork): 4.31"
  • Ravensdale: 4.12"
  • Smokey Point: 2.10"

Current Weather Information:

General Flooding Information: