Rains abate and floodwaters subsiding

Rains abate and floodwaters subsiding
SEATTLE (AP) - Rainfall ended in most areas and floodwaters were subsiding in Western Washington after killing two and forcing hundreds of people to flee from homes and business, some in rescues by helicopter and hovercraft.

Major highways were open, including Interstate 5, which was reopened to traffic early Wednesday after a closure of about nine hours because of high water at Chehalis, about 90 miles south of Seattle. Some lesser highways and numerous local roads remained closed because of high water, mud and rockslides or flood damage.

Most rivers in the region had crested and were subsiding by Wednesday morning, but some still were expected to stay well over flood stage through the day and major flooding is expected to continue along the Snoqualmie, Skagit, Cowlitz and Snohomish Rivers.

The Snoqualmie River crested early Wednesday but was still 6 feet over flood stage at 8 a.m. Wednesday morning. It's expected to slowly fall through the day, but not drop below flood stage until Wednesday night.

The Snohomish River near Monroe was a solid 7 feet over flood stage and was expected to remain over flood stage until late Thursday. At the city of Snohomish, the river was 8 1/2 feet over flood stage and was expected to remain steady there through midday Wednesday, then begin its slow drop. But it's not expected to drop below flood stage until Friday morning, meaning major flooding will continue in the meantime.

The Skagit River near Concrete was on its way down Thursday morning, but wasn't expected to be under flood stage until Thursday afternoon. Down river in Mount Vernon, the river was at 33 feet -- 5 feet over flood stage -- and slowly dropping, expecting to drop below flood stage Wednesday night. In the meantime, major flooding continues from Sedro-Woolley down through Mount Vernon.

The Cowlitz River, which has now claimed two lives in this storm, was expected to stay over flood stage until Thursday afternoon.

That second death occurred Tuesday when a pickup truck driver ignored road closure signs on U.S. Highway 12 and was swept into the Cowlitz River east of Randle. His body was recovered by Cowlitz County sheriff's deputies Wednesday morning. A 20-year-old elk hunter died Monday when his truck was swept into the Cowlitz, also in eastern Lewis County.

Flooding changed the course of the Cowlitz near Packwood, west of Randle. At least one house toppled into the river Tuesday but no one was injured.

There has been no estimate of damage.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, who declared a state of emergency in 18 counties Monday, took a helicopter tour of some of the flooding Tuesday and climbed aboard a National Guard truck for a drive through Hamilton, a severely flooded hamlet in Skagit County in northwest Washington.

"I feel very, very positive about what's going on here in Skagit County," Gregoire said during a stop in nearby 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."

Hamilton residents took to shelters as 4 to 5 feet of water surged through town. The flooding appeared to be several feet below the high water mark of 2003 as noted on a sign outside the Post Office. That flood caused $17 million in property damage in Skagit County and 3,400 households were evacuated.

To the south, two levee breaches along the Snohomish River near Snohomish resulted in what likely will be "the most significant flooding on record in the last 50 years," Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon said.

In Snohomish, about 25 miles north of Seattle, floodwater seeped into the municipal sewage treatment plant and damaged a diversion dam on the Pilchuck River. Larry Bauman, town planner, said countywide damage would likely exceed the $5 million from flooding in 2003.

"This is a catastrophic event," Bauman said. "We won't even know what the damage is until a few days, when the water recedes."

Three hundred homes and rental cabins were threatened with flooding after the Cowlitz River changed course and ran through a neighborhood near Packwood at midday Tuesday, sweeping away a small house, Lewis County sheriff's Deputy Stacy Brown said.

A statement issued early Wednesday indicated the threat had eased but did not specify how many homes were still threatened.

About 20 people spent Monday night at the Four Square Church in Packwood.

"I don't think anybody expected it to rise as fast as it did - like a boiling pot of chocolate milk," said church youth leader Amber Low. "It was just logs and root wads. It wasn't very pretty."

About 19 households called for rescue in the nearby Randle area, Brown said.

In Pierce County, south of Seattle, rescuers used boats and helicopters to evacuate 52 people and 15 dogs after dikes failed along the Puyallup River on Tuesday, inundating Riverside and stranding people who ignored warnings to leave for higher ground. Nearly 1,500 residents of Sumner were forced from their homes, The News Tribune of Tacoma reported.

"We've had some veteran search-and-rescue guys say this is the fastest, most dangerous water they've worked in the past 20 years," Pierce County sheriff's Detective Ed Troyer told The Times.

Rainfall in the five days ending Tuesday set records of 9.79 inches at the airport in Olympia, the state capital, eclipsing the mark of 8.3 inches set in 1990, and 7.57 inches at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where the old record was 5.59 inches in 1979.

Other five-day totals included 8.66 inches at Hoquiam and 6.91 inches at Quillayute, both on the Pacific coast, and 13.94 inches at Stampede Pass in the Cascades about 50 miles east-southeast of Seattle.

Record one-day totals for the date were recorded Monday with 4.31 inches at Olympia and 3.29 inches at Sea-Tac, and the 8.22 inches that fell at Stampede Pass was the most ever for a 24-hour period at that location.

Milder storms are likely later this week but nothing as powerful as those that caused the flooding, said Brent Bower, a Weather Service hydrologist.