SEATTLE — A vicious storm struck the Pacific Northwest and other western states at the start of the holiday travel season, dumping heavy snow on roads, knocking out power to tens of thousands of people and causing a cargo plane to overshoot its runway in Seattle.
As one measure of the seriousness of the storm, the Washington State Patrol this afternoon said it had responded to 1,500 accidents since Monday morning with 1,300 motorists being stranded.
It was declared the worst pre-Thanksgiving storm in a quarter century.
At least three deaths in Washington state have been blamed on the storm, including a man struck and killed outside his car Monday night on snowy Interstate 5 in Tacoma. Washington State Patrol Trooper Brandy Kessler said it wasn’t clear whether the man was chaining up his car or pushing it when he was hit.
A man’s body was found along the Willamette River waterfront in Portland today. Police were trying to determine whether the death was weather related.
Blowing snow, slick roads and temperatures in the mid-20s turned the Monday evening commute in the Puget Sound region into an hours-long crawl — for those who made it home. Some commuters gave up after being stuck for five hours or more and returned to their offices, or just left their cars at the side of the road.
Seattle’s morning rush hour wasn’t, with few cars on the icy roads and motorists keeping it slow. Most schools in the state were closed or delayed and the University of Washington closed all three of its campuses. Snowplows and deicing trucks were at work.
Video: Slip and slide on Seattle’s Capitol Hill
Those hoping to get a jump on Thanksgiving travel were out of luck, with officials urging people to stay home and many highways dangerous to travel. Alaska Airlines Group warned that flights were being delayed or canceled because crews couldn’t get to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where it accounts for about half of the passenger flights.
“Our customers and our employees both are just having a bad time because the roads are really bad,” Alaska spokesman Paul McElroy said. A record 2.5 inches of snow fell at the airport on Monday, breaking the old record for the date of 1.5 inches, set in 1977.
Elsewhere in the West, the weather service issued a blizzard warning for Utah amid forecasts of strong winds, heavy snow and possible whiteout conditions tonight. Searchers will brave an icy blast of winter when they resume the search of a rugged canyon near Moab for a man believed to have shot a Utah park ranger last week.
Commute times in Utah’s urban areas could quadruple, and officials told holiday travelers in the northern part of the state to complete trips by the afternoon to avoid high winds and blowing snow. Utah State University is closing early, and schools and city offices canceled evening activities.
Temperatures dipped to freezing in the Portland area and homeless people lined up at emergency warming shelters. Some schools closed, but Portland International Airport was open and flights were operating normally after crews worked through the night to deice runways.
Oregon State Police said heavy snow, high winds and limited visibility caused numerous commercial trucks to jackknife Monday near Mount Hood, and sections of Oregon Highway 26 were closed intermittently. Troopers also reported at least a dozen crashes Monday on Santiam Pass in Oregon’s central Cascades.
Chains or snow tires are being required on all mountain passes and some exposed valleys in the Sierra and northern Nevada, as snow and gusty winds make it hard to see the road. About a foot of snow is expected around Lake Tahoe.
Forecasters predict up to 14 inches of snow in north-central Idaho as the storm closed schools and shut down sections of highways. Idaho State Police said all roads in Bingham County in eastern Idaho are closed and the agency is urging motorists across the state to stay off streets slick with ice and snow. Four highways in eastern Idaho were closed.
In Washington, the state patrol launched a plane equipped with a heat-seeking camera to look for stranded motorists from Seattle south to Olympia.
“Our aircraft can cover large areas much faster than ground based troopers,” Sgt. Jim Nobach of the patrol’s aviation section said. “We can also check those sections of road that troopers can’t get to because of downed trees or power lines.”
Gov. Chris Gregoire and State Patrol Chief John Batiste issued a joint statement this afternoon.
“State troopers have dealt with uncounted collisions, spin outs and disabled vehicles. If you absolutely must drive, leave early,” added Batiste. “Don’t pressure yourself to hurry. Keep the speed down, and leave plenty of stopping space between you and the car in front of you. You’ll arrive faster by taking it slower.
“We are urging everyone to follow the advice of the National Weather Service – that is if you plan to drive, stay on the main roads and pack plenty of cold weather clothing,” Gregoire said. “Also – keep charcoal and gas grills, heaters and generators outside and wrap your pipes and outdoor faucets to prevent ruptured pipes and flooding inside your home.”
The latter suggestion is to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning among residents trying to heat darkened homes.
Winds gusting to 65 mph made matters worst by cutting off power Monday for tens of thousands of utility customers in Western Washington. Puget Sound Energy said most of its 90,000 outages were in Kitsap County. That number was down to 64,000 by 6 a.m. today, but spokeswoman Gretchen Aliabadi couldn’t say when everyone would have their power turned back on.
Temperatures should start to moderate Wednesday and there’s a chance of rain on Thanksgiving Day in Western Washington, although it could start as snow. Eastern Washington temperatures are forecast to remain well below freezing into the weekend, forecasters said.