July 24, 2012 in City, Outdoors, Region
Storms leave residents reeling
Thousands waiting to get power back
Friday’s powerful thunderstorms packed hurricane-force winds that snapped and uprooted hundreds – perhaps thousands – of trees and toppled power poles across North Idaho and northeast Washington.
The damage prompted Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire to proclaim a state of emergency for 16 Eastern Washington counties lashed by a series of storms that began July 13 and peaked July 20.
Two people died, cabins were smashed at Priest Lake, thousands remain without electricity, and the damage continues to be tallied this week.
It was among the worst storms in memory, say longtime residents. In some areas winds reportedly blew 100 mph.
The storms caused about $2 million damage to electrical equipment in Ferry County, where 750 miles of power lines remained down, said John Friederichs, manager of the public utility district based in Republic.
“I’ve been here forever and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Friederichs said. “Natives are freely saying they were scared to death.”
His weather station clocked wind speeds of 86 mph and he heard of another near town that hit 100 mph. The wind blew that hard in any given area only a few minutes, he said.
“A crew driving from Keller up the Sanpoil River to Republic reported that every (power line) span for 40 miles was damaged,” Friederichs said. “We have hundreds and hundreds of poles down.”
The storm slammed Priest Lake, damaging cabins and vehicles in the North Idaho resort community. The lake’s eastern side was hit particularly hard.
“It was one of the most violent storms I’ve ever seen,” said Jason Betz, assistant fire warden for the Idaho Department of Lands.
Betz was in a truck when the storm struck.
“It was just as hard as the wind can blow and as hard as the rain can fall,” he said.
Rangers evacuated Indian Creek Campground at Priest Lake State Park, sending campers to the beach or the headquarters building, which is in a clearing, so that they’d be safe from falling trees.
A tree crashed into one of Indian Creek Campground’s rental cabins, trapping two women and some children. Neighboring campers helped them escape through a back window.
“It was just kind of a miracle that no one was hurt,” said Sandy McQuarrie, the office and store manager. “There was a lot of damage to motor homes and trailers and vehicles.”
From her home at Lionhead Bay on the lake’s eastside, Eleanor Hungate watched 8- to 10-foot-tall waves crash into the bulkhead.
“The wind blew up the waves like we’ve never seen before,” she said.
“The devastation to the forest is amazing,” she said. “There’s going to be a lot of firewood.”
About 850 Northern Lights customers, primarily on the east side of Priest Lake, remained without power on Monday afternoon. Crews were working around the clock, but some customers could be without power for up to a week, a utility spokeswoman said.
“It’s a lot of work; they’re essentially rebuilding the system,” said Elissa Glassman, Northern Lights communications director.
But the storm also brought out lots of neighborly activity, Hungate said. Eastshore Road was blocked by dozens of downed trees, but it quickly cleared on Friday evening.
“I think everyone that owned a chain saw was on the road,” she said.
Mick Schanilec, Idaho Department of Lands area manager at Priest Lake, compared the damage from Friday’s freak summer storm to the 1996 winter ice storm.
It’s the same in Ferry County.
“We have about 3,200 retail customers and about 1,000 of them have power, mostly in the area around Republic,” said Friederichs. “A whole lot of people are going to go weeks before their power is restored.”
Although the utility district has only two trucks to service 2,100 square miles, electrical crews are being sent from Grant and Pend Oreille counties.
“The wind came in fast and a dock broke away from the ramp and was spinning around out in the marina,” said Kimberly Ennis at Keller Ferry Marina. “We saw very little damage to boats, although we heard of a pontoon boat that was flipped over out on the lake.”
“We lucked out at the Keller Ferry Campground,” said Jim Brown, Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area facilities manager. “Trees came down in the one spot where we didn’t have any tents.”
Washington State Patrol Trooper Ethan Wynecoop said scores of people from rural Ferry County showed up with chain saws to remove downed trees from roads as he tried to make his way over Sherman Pass Friday.
“Trees were down everywhere,” he said. “A group of Girl Scouts headed to camp even chipped in to help where I was pulling debris off the highway.”
As he patrolled south from Republic, the four members of the Herb Fields family from Cheney ran out to his patrol car from the devastated 10 Mile Campground.
“They’d had a pretty harrowing time,” he said. “Trees came down all over the campground, smashing their tent and their two vehicles. They ran to the open space of the (Sanpoil) river until a tree came down and scraped one of the boys, just missing him.
“That’s when they all took shelter in the campground outhouse. It’s made of concrete and was probably the safest place around.”