The Cascade Curtain became an impenetrable wall for holiday travelers Thursday as avalanches and blinding storms closed every route over the mountains in Washington.
Commercial flights into and out of Seattle also were delayed by severe weather west of the Cascades. Portland International Airport lost power for three hours during an ice storm reminiscent of the one that knocked Spokane to its knees before Thanksgiving.
In Spokane, city and county road crews were gearing up for a busy night of plowing and sanding.
“We’ve got about 40 or 50 people out,” said Larry Neil, city operations engineer.
About 9 a.m. Thursday, the Washington Department of Transportation closed Interstate 90 between North Bend and Cle Elum, a 40-mile stretch that includes Snoqualmie Pass. Hundreds of skiers and travelers were stranded.
“There were too many accidents” to keep the pass open, said Clarissa Lundeen, Transportation Department spokeswoman. “The snow was so heavy there was little visibility.”
The pass - Washington’s busiest - still was closed late Thursday.
Afternoon snowslides closed U.S. Highway 2’s Stevens Pass and U.S. Highway 12’s White Pass in the Cascades and state Highway 14 in the Columbia River gorge. White Pass was reopened before dark.
In Oregon, a slide of “light, fluffy snow” temporarily blocked eastbound lanes of Interstate 84 near Bonneville Dam, said Dave Davis, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Authorities reopened the highway - the main route between Portland and eastern Oregon - about 2 p.m. but warned that I-84 was icy. There was no telling whether it would remain open for long, Davis said.
The outlook for travelers crossing the mountains doesn’t get much better.
Forecasters predicted heavy snow in the Cascades today, followed by snow showers Saturday. In Spokane, the storm was expected to continue through this morning with a chance of snow showers through Saturday.
By Thursday afternoon, travelers who had hoped to drive across the Cascades began considering alternatives. Some asked Randy Nelson, supervisor at the Broadway/Flying J truck stop in Ellensburg, to recommend motels.
“Everything in Ellensburg is full,” Nelson said. “We’re sending people down to Yakima.”
Meanwhile, air traffic was hampered, though not halted, by the weather.
A heavy snowstorm that some in Seattle called a blizzard closed one of two runways at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Thursday morning. Most flights between Spokane and Seattle were delayed 45 minutes or an hour.
Passengers on a Southwest Airlines flight that was supposed to leave for Spokane at 7:10 a.m. waited two hours as the plane was sprayed with de-icing chemicals three times. The delay was more than twice as long as the flight itself.
“At long last, welcome to Spokane,” the pilot announced as the plane approached the airport.
The Portland airport lost electricity from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., and some airlines diverted planes to other airports, said Port of Portland spokesman Aaron Ellis.
By Thursday afternoon, as the new storm was blowing in, Spokane road crews still were clearing residential streets of snow that fell Christmas Eve.
Neil said that if the latest storm is severe, his crews will concentrate their efforts on eight key arterials in the city.
“If the snow comes down the way they’re saying it will, we’ll try to keep one lane open in each direction,” he said. “We’re not going to be trying to (plow) curb to curb.”
Spokane County, which saved money by using a skeleton crew Christmas Day, was catching up Thursday, said operations engineer Phil Barto. Crews manned 80 snowplows, graders and sanders, he said.
“The big question is: Do we have to go back” and plow the same roads again after the latest storm? Barto said.
Repeated storms are sapping the county’s road maintenance budget, he said.
“It’s just that much less money that we’ll have next summer for the permanent maintenance of asphalt and gravel roads.”