|Ref: States of emergency in Northwest as storms kill 5
| 12.05.2007 | 08:25:11 | Views: 1823 |
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At least 5 dead in storm; mudslides, avalanches follow deluge
Copters rescue more than 150 people from flooded areas
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Last updated 12:00 a.m. PT
By CHRIS MCGANN
CENTRALIA -- South of here, just past the Skookumchuck River, Interstate 5 ends. In place of Western Washington's main freeway lies a vast expanse of muddy water.
"I've lived here 26 years, and I've never run a jet boat down I-5 before," said Adam Boehm, a volunteer who is helping get supplies to people who need them. "It's pretty unbelievable."
Trees, trash bins and shipping containers bobbed on the brown water as volunteers in boats helped ferry food and other items from a local Wal-Mart to people cut off by flooding.
Department of Transportation officials said the highway -- which is under as much as 10 feet of water along a three-mile stretch -- would not reopen until Thursday or Friday and only then if the road is not seriously damaged.
The lake that I-5 became is the most visible example of the mess that remains throughout Western Washington because of flooding from this week's storm.
At least five people were killed and major road closures from flooding and slides included many stretches of U.S. 101 along the coast and the Olympic Peninsula and U.S. 12 east of Aberdeen.
Mudslides halted Amtrak passenger train service between Portland and Vancouver, B.C., at least through Wednesday.
Much of Grays Harbor County on the southwestern Washington coast was without electricity. A Bonneville Power Administration feeder line to the Aberdeen-Hoquiam area was down, and authorities were hoping to arrange for emergency generators that would enable supermarkets in Aberdeen to reopen.
More than 50,000 customers were without power in Western Washington Tuesday.
The deaths were two hikers found dead Tuesday from an avalanche in the Cascade Mountains, a Mason County man who died when he was buried in a building hit by a mudslide, a man in Aberdeen hit by a falling tree and a man in Montesano who apparently relied on oxygen equipment that stopped operating after electricity was lost, officials said.
Gov. Chris Gregoire took a helicopter tour over the hardest hit areas in Lewis, Grays Harbor and Mason counties and Woodinville.
From the air, Gregoire said it was hard to put the "huge areas of nothing but brown water" into perspective. "Then we'd see the tiny roof of a home ... I can't even imagine the cost. You look down, you just shake your head."
Department of Transportation engineers say they'll have to wait until the water recedes on I-5 to see the full extent of the damage.
Showers, but not heavy rain, were expected to continue through Tuesday night, with colder, drier weather forecast for the rest of the week.
The storm raises questions about possible long-range fixes for problems that might prevent a recurrence of such damage from bad weather. But in the case of I-5, those fixes could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
The freeway has been identified as a priority transportation route by Congress, a step toward obtaining federal financing for solutions such as more flood controls or raising the freeway above flood levels in Thurston and Lewis counties.
It's estimated that raising the freeway could cost $300 million to $400 million and flood controls would cost more than $100 million, said Dave Dye, assistant state transportation secretary.
Gregoire said Federal Highway Administration officials called Monday to see what they could do.
"Our message was clear," Gregoire said. "Bring out your checkbooks."
A kayaker calmly paddles Tuesday past the sign for Exit 77 on I-5 northbound in Chehalis. The region's largest highway was under about 10 feet of water in some places.
Elizabeth Johnson, a nurse at Providence Centralia Hospital, said helicopters had been flying in continuously, bringing people who had been rescued from flooded homes and vehicles.
"They were mostly people who were suffering from exposure to the elements, hypothermia and the like," she said. "They were trapped in houses or trapped outside."
Coast Guard and Navy rescue helicopters were dispatched to rescue more than 150 people stranded at their homes by heavy winds and flooding, officials said.
More than 100 National Guard soldiers have been assisting in the rescue and emergency operations. The Army Corps of Engineers also sent seven flood teams to help monitor several levees.
State Patrol Chief John Batiste said most of west Lewis County is underwater, with widespread devastation, and at least two bridges washed out.
At one point, 19 cities and counties had activated emergency response centers, though some, including Seattle's, closed on Tuesday.
Vonni Carole and Dennis DeGross of Adna, a small town downstream along the Chehalis River, told Gregoire they were stranded but had not given up hope.
"Our house is probably under water," Carole said. "Say a prayer for us."
While the retired couple expected to find flooding at least on the first floor of their home, their biggest concern was for their neighbors, many of whom are poor and elderly.
Long-haul trucker Tyron Nelson was stranded in Rochester while going from Seattle to Sweet Home, Ore.
He said the wait had already cost him $1,200 in lost opportunity but it didn't make sense to take the long detour through Eastern Washington as the Transportation Department has recommended. State officials advised a lengthy detour from Seattle to Portland: Interstate 90 across the Cascades and down U.S. 97 through central Washington to the Oregon border -- a route that roughly doubles the three-hour trip on I-5.
"Once you turn the key, you're burning money," Nelson said. "For 450 miles running empty, that's diggin' in your pocket. Bottom line, I just want to get home safe."
At a scene where devastation stretched to the soggy horizon, the flood turned out to be the saving grace for two lucky pigs.
Nathan McBee, 22, said he'd tried to move about 50 pigs away from his father-in-law's meat processing plant Monday night, "but the water came in too fast."
By midafternoon Tuesday, 40 pigs were still unaccounted for but McBee caught two along the closed freeway. All had been headed for the chopping block, but their fates have changed.
"We'll give them back to the owners," he said. "I don't think they'll end up dying after this."
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