Record floods prompt evacuations, road closures

Record floods prompt evacuations, road closures »Play Video
SEATTLE - Rainstorms eased Tuesday but record flooding continued in Western Washington, changing the course of the Cowlitz River at Packwood, south of Mount Rainier, and forcing rescues in Skagit and Lewis counties.

Flood warnings were posted Tuesday on 19 Western Washington rivers, with six rivers already reaching record crests - the Skykomish River near Gold Bar, the Carbon River near Fairfax, the Snoqualmie River near Carnation, the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River near Arlington, the Cowlitz River at Randle and Packwood, and the Nisqually River near National - the weather service reported Tuesday.

The steady drenching was subsidizing to showers Tuesday afternoon as the so-called Pineapple Express moved east. After a respite Wednesday and Thursday - with light showers and perhaps even some sun breaks - another Pacific weather system was expected to deliver more routine drizzle late Thursday and Friday, said forecast Johnny Burg. "Not more flooding."

It will take time for swollen rivers to subside, though.

Rainfall records were set Monday across Western Washington, including 8.22 inches at Stampede Pass, which broke an all-time rain record of 7.29 inches set on Nov. 19, 1962.

New records for Monday's date included 3.29 inches at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, more than triple the old record of .99 set in 1980, and 4.31 inches at Olympia Airport, nearly double the old record of 1.74, also set in 1980. A record temperature of 61 degrees was set in Seattle on Monday, beating the 1997 record of 60 degrees, the weather service said.

Three hundred homes and rental cabins were threatened with flooding after the raging Cowlitz River changed course in the High Valley area near Packwood at midday Tuesday, said Deputy Stacy Brown of the Lewis County sheriff's office.

All roads into Packwood were closed by mudslides and flooding, which made rescues more difficult, Brown said.

About 19 households had called for rescue in the Randle area, where the Cowlitz River was rising past 24.45 feet, well above the 18-foot flood level, she said. "The people that we told to evacuate yesterday are staying and now we are risking our rescue personnel," said Brown, who was expecting assistance Tuesday from a helicopter and National Guard troops.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, who declared a state of emergency for 18 counties, flew over affected areas in a helicopter Tuesday.

"I feel very, very positive about what's going on here in Skagit County," the governor said during a stop in Mount Vernon. "People here know when to call for help and when not to ... it's worked exactly as it should - federal, state and local."

She said she'd heard from both the state's U.S. senators and other members of the congressional delegation. "Everybody's standing ready to help us."

Cresting at 39.77 feet at Concrete early Tuesday, the Skagit River did not go as high as it did during the last big flood, in 2003, officials said. But the total impact, which won't be known for days, could be comparable to that year, when flooding caused $17 million in property damage in Concrete and 3,4000 households were evacuated, said county spokesman Don McKeehen. Flood stage on the Skagit River at Concrete and Mount Vernon is 28 feet.

Fewer people than expected made their way to emergency shelters in eastern Skagit County and a minus tide expected Tuesday afternoon could aid runoff along shorelines, he said.

Mount Vernon Mayor Bud Norris declared a civil emergency, and volunteers worked to build a sandbag wall downtown next to the river, which was not expected to crest until 10 p.m. Tuesday.

Amid earlier warnings of record flooding, more than a dozen Guard personnel were sent late Monday to rescue an unknown number of people in Skagit County. A subsequent request for an additional 150 troops was downgraded to about 25-35 troops Tuesday after the river crested at Concrete, McKeehen said.

Voters in several counties were expected to have trouble making it to the polls or the post office Tuesday, though most Washington counties now vote entirely by mail and election officials said a majority of ballots were mailed before the flooding began.

State elections director Nick Handy encouraged voters in extreme situations to write a note on the outside of their mail-in ballot envelopes explaining what happened.

Heavy rainfall helped spread a 18,000-gallon diesel fuel spill near Crystal Mountain ski resort into local rivers and streams. The leak came from tanks used to supply a backup generator on Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest land. Cleanup personnel from the Department of Ecology, who had vacuumed out about 2,000 gallons of fuel mixed with water, were stranded at the site Tuesday by a log jam and a mudslide, said spokesman Curt Hart.

Numerous smaller roads throughout Western Washington remained closed Tuesday as the Department of Transportation continued to clear debris and pump water.

State officials were concerned about the safety of five public water systems in Pacific, Pierce, Skagit and Snohomish counties and 13,000 smaller ones, said Leslie Gates, spokeswoman for the Health Department's office of drinking water.

Testing of a small system in Pierce County found E. coli, but Gates said Health Department officials were not certain the problem was related to flooding. Most of the other issues involved muddy water and residents were told drinking water would be trucked in.