February 9, 1996 in Nation/World

Waters Rage Across Northwest Worst Flooding In 30 Years Forces Thousands To Flee

Mike Prager Eric Sorensen And The Staff writer

The Pacific Northwest’s worst flooding in more than 30 years pushed rivers over their banks and closed highways from Oregon to Western Montana Thursday.

Fast-melting snow and days of heavy rains triggered the deluge.

Hundreds of tired workers, many of them volunteers, battled surging waters with plywood and sandbags from downtown Portland to small farm towns like Colfax and Palouse in Whitman County.

“It’s a nightmare down here,” said Palouse resident Teri Haglin.

“The adrenaline is so high. We’re trying to make the best of it. We’re trying to laugh through the tragedy.”

There, the swollen South Fork of the Palouse River swamped homes and businesses Thursday, forcing evacuations, closing bridges and threatening the town’s municipal water supply.

Similar reports came from other towns: Pullman, Dayton, Waitsburg, Touchet and Walla Walla in Washington; St. Maries, Hayden Lake, Culdesac, Lapwai and Rose Lake in North Idaho.

Washington Gov. Mike Lowry proclaimed a state of emergency in 13 of the state’s 39 counties, and more were expected to be added.

“Some of these counties are still coping with the damage from floods and winds last fall,” the governor said. “This … just adds to the suffering.”

Eighteen counties in Oregon and seven counties in Idaho were also declared disaster areas.

The next step is for the governors to ask President Clinton for federal aid.

Forecasters were calling for relief today. Drier weather is expected.

Thursday’s flooding caused washouts and mudslides that blocked major highways linking the Inland Northwest to coastal Oregon and Washington. Highways were also blocked in North Idaho.

A sheriff’s patrol car - lights still flashing - was swept by a mudslide into the Columbia River near Cascade Locks, Ore., on Thursday.

“It was like a moving light show,” said state police Lt. Bernie Giusto.

Oregon and southern Washington were hardest hit by the floods.

The Willamette and Columbia rivers were expected to crest today at their highest levels since the Christmas flood of 1964, when 47 people died and 17,000 people were left homeless.

In Portland, the Willamette was forecast to rise a foot higher than the lowest point in the downtown sea-wall.

“We don’t call the shots, the rivers do,” said Portland emergency coordinator George Houston.

In nearby Vancouver on the Columbia River, airplanes were moved to higher ground at Pearson Air Park where half the runway was under water.

Longtime city worker Kelly Puteney said, “We’ve been a little arrogant about this river for a long time, and it’s important that we realize what it can do.”

In Eugene and Salem, 13,500 people were forced from their homes by the raging Willamette. Tillamook on the coast was largely under water.

Flooding was blamed for three Oregon deaths, including a 9-year-old girl who drowned in a culvert after she went out to get the mail Wednesday in the Willamette Valley town of Scio.

A Troutdale, Ore., woman was missing after her home dropped into the Sandy River and drifted three miles into the Columbia River. Her husband, who was also in the house, was rescued by a tugboat crew.

No deaths were reported outside Oregon.

South of Tacoma, a locomotive was swept Thursday into Puget Sound by a landslide, injuring two Burlington Northern crew members.

In Montana, flooding and ice jams were reported in half the state’s 56 counties. About four-dozen residents in Helena were evacuated.

“Weather can be our greatest ally

or our greatest enemy,” Montana Gov. Marc Racicot said Thursday after surveying the damage.

Where the raging rivers were contained, residents watched in awe.

“It’s really boogeying past here,” said George Currier, a councilman in St. Maries, Idaho.

The North Fork of the Palouse River was in full fury in downtown Colfax, filling the city’s “concrete river” - built for flood control - within 3 feet of its lip. Water spilled over late Thursday.

Throughout Whitman County, volunteers and county workers had used 20,000 sandbags. Another 19,000 were on order.

A levee in Elberton overflowed. Water was across the road to Endicott.

On the South Fork of the Palouse, Pullman held its own - barely.

Water flooded several streets. Sandbags two to three deep protected businesses. Traffic to the evening basketball game at Washington State University was slowed.

“Benewah Street is now a river again and the city playfield is now an island,” said police Sgt. Sam Sorem.

A countywide state of emergency remained in effect, with non-essential traffic banned from rural county roads.

“Overall, it’s worse than yesterday,” said Whitman County Commissioner Jim Potts.

While Red Cross officials toured the city preparing a damage assessment for federal relief funds, the South Fork rose about a half foot during the afternoon and crested at 8.2 feet, slightly below its crest of 8.4 feet Wednesday.

In Spokane County, Latah Creek continued to flow over its banks about 2 feet above flood stage. No serious damage was reported.

While some people are surprised by the swift rise of the region’s rivers, the Northwest is historically flood-prone, although dams have lessened the threat.

In Portland, with the Willamette River raging a few yards away, restaurateur Gary Kaer said, “I’ve always felt like you can overcome anything life throws at you.

“With this, what can you do? Nothing, but wait and hope for the best.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Map of area.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Mike Prager Staff writer Staff writer Eric Sorensen and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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