Arrow-right Camera


Inland Northwest Pounded Fast-Moving Storm Smashes Cars, Houses

Sun., June 1, 1997

The Haley residence was a crush of metal, wood and scraps from a fallen lace curtain.

Slammed by a sudden storm, a 50-foot tree fell diagonally Saturday on the family’s trailer home in the Spokane County town of Elk - ripping it in half, pinning Georgia Haley to a living room chair.

“I kept thinking, ‘We’re gonna die, we’re gonna die,”’ said Kristin Robles, one of seven people inside. “I was crying so hard.”

A sudden onslaught of strong winds and a fierce thunderstorm with nickel-size hail ripped through the Inland Northwest Saturday - tossing trees and snapping power lines.

Power was knocked out across North Idaho and Eastern Washington.

As the black clouds stormed toward Coeur d’Alene, police evacuated City Park, where hundreds of children were taking part in the Kiwanis Family Day in the Park.

As event organizers packed up booths and a food concession, a few families lingered at the park’s new Fort Sherman Play Park.

A police cruiser paused by the playground and over a loudspeaker told everyone to seek shelter because of a tornado warning.

One mother wasted no time, running out of the park with her children.

Nicole and Tim Smith from Post Falls led their crying 3-year-old from the playground. She’d only gotten to play for five minutes before she had to leave.

A few fearless teenagers remained at the skate board park as the parking area nearby emptied.

In Post Falls, a family riding bikes near the Post Falls police station was caught off guard by the storm, said dispatcher Barb Buckley.

“The little kids’ bikes were blowing out of the their hands,” she said. The family and other passersby sought shelter at the station and in City Hall until the storm passed.

The Kootenai County Sheriff’s marine patrol warned boaters off the lake and then secured their own boats for the storm.

“We’re not putting any boats on the water,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger, who was called into work to help at an emergency operations center. The center was closed down at about 5 p.m.

The worst of the storm bypassed Coeur d’Alene, and swung north through Hayden, then Bonner and Boundary counties, then into Montana. Strong winds and lightning knocked over dozens of trees onto power lines, homes and cars.

Most of Hayden was without power. The staff at the Hayden Lake Country Club broke out lanterns and candles to serve dinner to 200 guests at a wedding reception.

The city of Bayview lost power, as did parts of Bonner and Boundary counties, where roads were impassable because of downed trees.

North of Spokane in Stevens County, the storm even snatched up an entire barn - a horse still inside - then slammed it down in the middle of Prufer Road, four miles west of U.S. Highway 395. Firefighters reported the horse survived.

Throughout Stevens and Spokane counties, cars were smashed and homes were impaled by trees. U.S. Highway 2 - criss-crossed with hundreds of limbs and live wires - was closed.

In Elk, wind shook the Haleys’ mobile home at about 2 p.m., recalled Robyn Robles, a close family friend. Then came the rain. Then hail.

As the family slowly gathered in the living room, they heard a noise outside. They dropped to the floor.

“Everything came down, and the roof fell,” Robyn Robles said. “The walls started leaning on me.”

The storm uprooted the tree that stood less than 10 feet away from the trailer.

They tried to lift the tree off of Haley, said her husband, Ron. It was too heavy.

“I’m OK,” she kept telling him.

Medics eventually rescued the 44-year-old. She was taken to Holy Family Hospital in Spokane, where she was treated and released.

According to the National Weather Service, the storm was a “squall line” - a rare recipe for destruction caused when a cold front mixes with heat and humidity.

“The moisture is like pulling the hammer back on the gun, and the cold front is the trigger,” meteorologist Mark Strobin said.

The storm blasted in from the Washington and Oregon coasts, carried on winds as high as 65 mph. The temperature at Spokane’s Felts Field dropped from 79 at 1 p.m. to 61 at 3 p.m.

Driving wind and rain disrupted an art festival in downtown Spokane, and also state high school baseball, softball and track tournaments.

In mere moments, entire neighborhoods were littered with felled trees. The weather service said the storm didn’t stay in one place longer than 20 minutes.

In Spokane, Karen Baker’s West Sinto home nearly met the same fate as the Haleys’. She came home to find “this big, humongous tree” in her yard.

“From the front, all I could see was the peak of my house,” Baker said. It destroyed $300 in lilies and tore out part of a neighbor’s porch.

In nearby Suncrest, a tornado ripped up a tree by its roots and sent it smashing into a house. No injuries were reported. “It completely creamed their living room,” neighbor Diane Moore said.

“We saw huge, black clouds like a funnel come ripping through over a bluff,” Moore said.

According to Washington Water Power, electric lines were downed throughout its service area. No estimates on the number of residents affected were available.

Company spokeswoman Carol Snyder warned people without power to turn off all electronic equipment. They should leave one light on, she said, so they know when power returns. Even after it does, they should leave everything off for about 30 minutes.

People should report downed power lines immediately. “Don’t touch them or try to move them,” Snyder warned.

The weather service reported that the squall isn’t expected to be repeated. However, showers are on the way for Tuesday.

Today should be partly sunny with only a small chance of showers. Highs are expected in the 60s. Monday should be warmer, 70 degrees, with isolated showers.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos Graphic: What caused Saturday’s storm

MEMO: Changed in the Spokane edition.

Changed in the Spokane edition.

Click here to comment on this story »