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West Side storm kills two, closes I-5

Tue., Dec. 4, 2007

OLYMPIA – High warm winds, heavy rains and melting snow Monday battered and drenched parts of Western Washington, leaving two people dead, putting five miles of the Pacific Northwest’s main north-south freeway under water, and prompting Gov. Chris Gregoire to declare a state of emergency.

Rescuers in boats and Coast Guard, Navy and sheriff’s helicopters worked into the night to find dozens of people from disabled cars and homes surrounded by floodwater. Two helicopters from Fairchild Air Force Base were slated to join the effort overnight, according to Gordon Toney, Washington National Guard assistant adjutant general.

By 4 p.m., about half of an estimated 150 stranded people had been rescued. Among them were four hikers near Snoqualmie Pass. Some of the people rescued, Gregoire said, were pulled out of floodwater.

Dozens of landslides and mudslides were reported, and state road crews struggled to clear downed trees and keep roads open despite rising water. Most of the damage was in Lewis, Thurston and Mason counties. Interstate 90 was closed briefly because of avalanche danger but was reopened by evening.

“At this hour, Aberdeen has been effectively cut off,” Gregoire told reporters at the Capitol on Monday morning. The situation was unchanged by nightfall. Road crews were only letting emergency vehicles in and out of the city on a single open road littered with landslide debris and downed power lines. Gregoire said it was a top priority to reopen the roads to the city.

To the north, the Hood Canal Bridge was temporarily impassible Monday. Bridge operators had to open the drawbridge to relieve the stress of 45 mph sustained wind on floating parts of the structure, Gregoire said. Near Olympia, the key Highway 101 was closed by a mudslide. About 75,000 people were without power.

In some places, Gregoire said, floodwater may not crest until Thursday.

“We’ve not seen the worst, is our concern,” she said.

Toney said 300 National Guard troops were being called up Monday night to help state troopers man roadblocks and direct traffic. They’ll be equipped with high-clearance vehicles and some generators, he said. The state also issued 56,000 sandbags to local governments. Toney said 13 counties, two tribes and six cities had opened their emergency operations centers by Monday night.

Grays Harbor County sheriff’s Detective Ed McGowan, the county’s incident commander for the storm, confirmed the two deaths.

One man in Aberdeen died when a tree fell on him as he was trying to clear another downed tree; the other person died from an undetermined medical problem after power was lost, McGowan said.

On Interstate 5, the highway linking Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, road crews watched nervously Monday as rising water near Chehalis forced the closure of a northbound shoulder, then one lane, and finally all four lanes. State troopers closed off a 20-mile stretch of the highway, about 5 miles of which was submerged Monday night.

Throughout the region, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste said, troopers rescued numerous people from stalled cars in high water. Some had driven around barricades.

The rate at which the water rose surprised highway officials, state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said. Water experts had thought it would take longer for the floodwaters to rise and predicted the highway would stay open until 10 p.m. Monday.

“All of a sudden, it just came up over the roadway,” she said.

The last time flooding closed that stretch of I-5 was 1996, when the nearby Chehalis River crested at 75 feet.

“That’s five feet over our highway,” said Hammond. Last time, the interstate was closed for four days, she said. And this time? There’s no way to know until the water subsides and crews can inspect the freeway for damage, she said. “I don’t know if it will be (closed for) 24, 36 or 48 hours, or more,” Hammond said.

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