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Storm Ices Region Restoring Power May Take Days

Eastern Washington residents - robbed of electricity by one of the region’s worst ice storms in memory - may remain in the dark for several days.

“It’s not like we have one or two major transmission lines down where we can fix those and bring (everybody) back up at once,” said Rob Strenge of Washington Water Power Co. “We’re going to have to go from neighborhood to neighborhood to fix each line.

“That’s going to take some time.”

The storm that plowed into the region Tuesday knocked out power to at least 100,000 homes and businesses.

More than half are in Spokane County, said Strenge. Between 5,000 and 10,000 customers in Coeur d’Alene were without power late Tuesday.

“We don’t expect the situation to improve any time soon,” Strenge said, adding that power may not be restored in some areas for three to four days.

Thousands of lines - most downed by tree limbs shattered under the weight of snow and ice - have to be fixed to restore the power.

Beyond blackouts, the storm caused numerous injuries and the death of at least one local man. It also knocked out telephones and many radio stations.

And it heavily damaged property and sent 200 people across town to shelters in search of warmth and light.

A Colbert man died when a tree crashed into his motor home in a campground near Naches, Wash.

Spokane’s four hospitals - three operating on auxiliary power systems - reported treating storm-related injuries. Each emergency room aided people who’d been bloodied by falling tree branches.

At 3 p.m., Spokane County Fire District 9 asked everyone to stay home.

“We have power lines and trees down all over Spokane and Stevens counties, causing extreme hazards to motorists,” a dispatcher said.

Thirty minutes later, officials shut down Spokane International Airport, which was still closed late Tuesday night.

At 8 p.m., the city of Spokane declared a state of emergency and asked all schools in the county to remain closed today.

“Because of the significant power outages, lines downed, streets blocked, it’s an overwhelming emergency,” said Bill Pupo, acting city manager. The designation will attract state and federal relief dollars, he said.

Pupo urged residents to “keep demonstrating their extraordinary patience. … Everybody has to pitch in and be tolerant with our efforts and each others’ and recognize it’s an extraordinary event.”

By late Tuesday, darkened streets forced city crews to stop removing branches and limbs, said Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams. “It’s too dangerous.”

Public safety officials were urging businesses to open late today so that street crews could get a jump on clearing roads.

Across the region, the storm threw everything into a spin.

The sounds of sirens screamed through the air. Power lines crashed to the ground, sending huge white flashes arcing across the sky.

Traffic lights swung lifelessly in the wind. Drivers swerved their cars around downed limbs or entire trees and fought their way through uncontrolled intersections.

Telephones went dead. Hotels filled up. Grocery stores and restaurants closed. Radio stations blinked off the air.

Families scoured their cupboards for flashlights or candles - and a dinner that didn’t need help from a stove.

“It’s pretty wild out there,” said Spokane Mayor Jack Geraghty from the city’s emergency command center at downtown’s Fire Station One.

“It looks like a war zone,” said Mark Starr, a manager at David’s Pizza near Gonzaga University, which didn’t have any power. “Look, Ma. No lights.”

Heavy snow and ice uprooted thick, decades-old trees all over campus, said Starr, who doubled as a delivery man to handle the crunch Tuesday night. “Half the campus is covered with (yellow caution) tape just to keep students away.”

There was hardly a block, barely a yard in Spokane not littered with branches and limbs.

Corbin Park sounded like a rifle range as trees snapped and crashed to the ground. Treed areas such as those around Whitworth College and Rockwood Boulevard looked like they’d been ravaged by beavers.

“It sounds like popcorn popping,” said Indian Trail resident Stephanie Muto of the tree limbs falling around her.

A pine tree in Muto’s yard fell, hitting a street lamp. Across the road, two more slender pines snapped and slammed into a home, damaging a garage.

In Coeur d’Alene, Ron Hysley was in his house when he heard a crash. He glanced outside, just in time to see an enormous tree crush his neighbor’s Ford Explorer.

The force of the tree flattened the vehicle, sending a shower of branches onto Indiana Avenue and blocking traffic.

Hysley rushed next door, fearing his neighbor was inside. He found Amy McEntee safe in her home.

“It was the weirdest thing I ever heard,” she said. “I looked outside and the tree cut my car down the middle.”

McEntee stared as friends pulled the frozen tree’s hulk off her Explorer. “I loved that car,” she said, shaking with emotion.

Near the Pend Oreille County line, freezing rain turned to wet, heavy snow that quickly encrusted windshield wipers like batter on a corn dog.

“So far, up here it looks like we’re the lucky ones,” said Pend Oreille County Sheriff Dick Arend. “We’ve had a number of slide-offs, but no injury accidents at all.”

Spokane city snowplows doubled as bulldozers, smashing into downed trees to clear a path for drivers impatient to get home and assess the damage.

Drivers stuck in traffic on the Maple Street Bridge watched the sky glow blue as unseen transformers exploded.

The explosions cost the Public Safety Building - headquarters for the Spokane police and sheriff’s departments - its power and telephone service.

Pupo said snow crews would spend the night sanding and de-icing arterials for morning travelers.

By early evening, about 35 people had made their way to a Red Cross shelter at Seth Woodard Elementary School in the Valley.

While Red Cross volunteers tried to come up with supper, families snacked on bananas, chips and juice.

“It’s hard to find anyplace to get meals tonight when the restaurants are closed,” said volunteer Mira Anzalone. “Oh, good, they’re cutting the bananas in half.”

One family at Seth Woodard came fully prepared. “We’ve got some kids’ movies and a VCR out in the car,” said Sara Pedigo, watching her four children bounce around the gymnasium.

“We lost everything in a house fire four years ago,” Pedigo sad. “So, when those trees started coming down, we packed everything.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Kristina Johnson Staff writer Staff writers Adam Lynn, Kelly McBride, John Craig, Kathy Mulady, Mike Schmeltzer, Dan Hansen, Marny Lombard, Kevin Blocker and Jim Camden contributed to this report.