OLYMPIA _ Floodwaters in several Western Washington counties began to recede Wednesday, with residents returning to waterlogged homes and state officials struggling to gauge the scope of the damage.
With rescue operations still under way, state emergency officials said Wednesday they’re still unable to estimate the toll of the wind storms and widespread flooding. “I can’t imagine it’s something short of billions,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire. “… It’s bad.”
She’s asking federal emergency officials and the White House for help. The weekend and Monday storms contributed to the deaths of at least seven people before subsiding Tuesday. Thousands remained without power Wednesday, and some towns were still unreachable.
Interstate 5, the main north-south highway linking Seattle and Portland, will remain closed until at least the weekend. Some 20 miles of the highway are closed near Chehalis, with several miles of I-5 under as much as 10 feet of water in recent days. The water fell to about 5 feet Wednesday, with workers cleaning debris and repairing the road as the water receded. Pavers planned to work overnight.
As evening fell, state road crews were also planning to use an excavator to tear a hole in a dike near the Chehalis airport.
“What that will do for us is essentially drain that bathtub” around the flooded freeway, state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond told reporters at the state capitol. The move followed hours of debate with local officials who refused to do it themselves or allow crews onto city or county property to breach the dike. State officials finally decided to simply do it. They predicted that water levels downstream would only rise an inch or two.
“The governor has made it clear that we should do everything possible to get I-5 open,” Hammond said. “This is an emergency.”
Also Wednesday, search and rescue teams from throughout the region were continuing to look for stranded people in several Western Washington counties. More than 300 have been rescued by helicopters; many others were brought out on boats.
The worst-hit counties included Lewis, Mason, Pacific, Grays Harbor and Thurston. On the edge of downtown Centralia, waist-high water the color of chocolate milk covered streets as police used small boats to get to houses in flooded neighborhoods.
In some areas, National Guard troops were going house to house, checking for people too old or weak to evacuate to the 18 Red Cross shelters set up in seven counties. About 750 people stayed in shelters Tuesday night, including about 130 people from evacuated nursing homes. Many others are staying with friends and family.
The governor said troops with high-clearance trucks were also ferrying supplies to a hospital in Centralia, which early Wednesday was surrounded by water. State officials were keeping track of oxygen, drug and propane supplies at several other hospitals in the flooded region.
The rescue effort included seven crew members and two UH-1N Huey helicopters from Fairchild Air Force Base’s 36th Rescue Flight. One chopper flew a hiker with a leg broken in an avalanche to a Seattle hospital. The helicopters also flew several missions over the Bremerton area, searching for storm victims. Both aircraft were headed home Wednesday night, base spokesman Joe Wiles said.
The Red Cross, which expects 500 volunteers, is setting up operations in west Olympia. The Spokane-based Inland Norwest Chapter of the American Red Cross dispatched seven volunteers to help with flood relief and planned to send more, spokesman Thomas Stredwick said. The group also sent a communications vehicle and a food rig to provide meals to families remaining in their homes.
Gregoire flew over flooded areas by helicopter Tuesday, visiting flood victims and emergency crews. At a high school in Chehalis, she visited 40 people taking shelter. From the air, she saw people lined up for blocks at a rural gas station, apparently to get fuel for generators.
“It’s hard to comprehend 5- to 10-feet under until you see those houses,” the governor said.
Gregoire said she was encouraged by local rescue efforts, including a man on a Jet-Ski who plucked two boys off a floating roof. With the Lewis County airport flooded, she said, a local school superintendent turned on the high school football field lights to serve as a landing zone for rescue choppers.
“That’s become the airport for Chehalis,” Gregoire said.
All told, 14 aircraft were working out of the Olympia airport Wednesday to find and help flood victims, the governor said, making it the state’s largest search and rescue effort in a decade. Many of those rescued, Lewis County Sheriff Steve Mansfield said, were plucked off their rooftops.
The closure of Interstate 5 – which normally sees 54,000 vehicles pass by each day, 10,000 of them trucks – has been a blow to the economy, Gregoire said. For most trucks, state officials are recommending a lengthy detour across the Cascade Mountains and through central Washington, a route that more than doubles the three-hour trip from Seattle to Portland. Burlington Northern Santa Fe restored train service Wednesday through Centralia, with passenger train service expected to resume today.
Some cities remained hard-hit Wednesday. In Lewis County, the town of Pe Ell remained cut off by floodwaters Wednesday. At the governor’s order, National Guard troops ferried in food to the town. In nearby Pacific County, utility crews struggled to restore power to the city of Raymond. In nearby Ocean Shores, 19 people were taken to a hospital for carbon monoxide poisoning from a supermarket grocery store. All were expected to be fine.
While many people returned to survey the damage in their flooded homes and yards Wednesday, some people were looking for the lost. In the Lewis County town of Winlock, a dive team planned to search normally tiny Wallers Creek for Richard Hiatt, 81, believed to have been swept away when the riverbank gave way beneath him.
“It happened so quickly,” daughter-in-law Sharon Hiatt said Tuesday as searches continued. “That’s the only possibility, that he fell into the creek.”