Severe thunderstorms pounded the Inland Northwest Wednesday, toppling trees that crushed homes and cars and cutting power to more than 60,000 homes and businesses.
One man suffered life-threatening injuries in Chattaroy when a tree slammed onto his car, impaling the driver.
Farther north in Riverside, nearly 40 homes at a mobile home park were struck by trees, and about 50 residents were using a shelter set up by the Red Cross at Riverside High School late Wednesday.
At least one minor injury was reported in North Idaho when a falling tree struck an RV at the Silverwood RV Park north of Coeur d’Alene, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office reported.
Marilyn Koenig, who lives at Riverside Village mobile home park, said the storm reminded her of a tornado as she watched the trees begin to fall.
“I was looking out the window and just saw them snapping,” she said. “The wind was just really fierce. It just bent them.”
The storms locally were part of a broader swath of severe weather that extended from southeast Washington into the fire zones of Central Washington and northward toward the Canadian border.
Spokane International Airport had a peak gust of 67 mph while the National Weather Service office northwest of Airway Heights had a 60 mph gust.
More than 39,000 Avista Utilities customers were without power at the peak point of outages. Another 20,700 Inland Power and Light and 6,500 Kootenai Electric Cooperative customers lost power.
Avista spokeswoman Mary Tyrie said it was too early to know on Wednesday evening how soon power will be fully restored. All available crews were dispatched.
“This is a significant outage and lots of lines are down,” she said.
Mobile home park hit hard
At the Riverside Village, cars were smashed flat and perhaps three dozen mobile homes were damaged – one of which was sliced in half – as dozens of pines snapped or uprooted in the wind.
Kassie Wheeler went outside to check her mail and was chatting with the park’s manager when the storm hit suddenly.
“It was definitely tornado winds,” she said. “The landlady was pushed up against the car. It was pushing me every which way.”
Trees fell on Wheeler’s mobile home and car, damaging them both but not destroying them. She immediately rushed inside to save her two dogs, Neco and Stakaya. “They’re family,” she said of her two pets.
As darkness fell authorities were still trying to assess the damage. Early estimates are that between 35 and 40 mobile homes were damaged among the 200 in the park, said Capt. Megan Hill of Spokane County Fire District 4. No one was injured.
The park is without power and water and residents were being asked to go to a Red Cross shelter at Riverside High School. The park is served by both Avista Utilities and Inland Power and Light. There is no way to know when the power will be back on, Hill said.
Trees narrowly missed Koenig’s mobile home, but a shed, fence and two cars were crushed.
“We’re alive and that’s what matters,” she said. “We fared better than some of the others.”
After the storm passed, neighbors cut through trunks with chain saws to clear the roads in the park. Some offered to clear off Wheeler’s car so she could see how badly it was damaged.
“It’s a community,” Wheeler said. “We take care of each other.”
A man was impaled by a tree branch after his car was hit by a falling tree as a drove down Big Meadows Road in Chattaroy.
“He veered off the road and crashed,” said Capt. Megan Hill of Spokane County Fire District 4. The tree branch was sticking out of his abdomen and his right arm was nearly severed, but the man was conscious and talking when rescue crews arrived at the scene near the intersection of Yale Road.
The man had to be cut out of his car, Hill said. He was transported to a local hospital by MedStar with life threatening injuries.
Trees liter northwest Spokane
In Northwest Spokane not far from Joe Albi Stadium, numerous trees blocked streets and damaged homes.
One crashed through Charlie McInerney’s home on Crown Avenue. Had it fallen five minutes earlier, McInerney said his wife would have been sitting at the kitchen table in the path of the tree. She left to pick up their kids at daycare.
“We’re pretty shaken up, but we’re glad everyone is safe,” he said.
Nearby, on Bemis Street, after the storm Diane Westman was part of group blocking the street with basketball hoops. There weren’t emergency crews around and neighbors wanted to ensure drivers didn’t hit downed wires.
During the storm, Westman said the noise was so loud she couldn’t make out what was happening except when electrical boxes blew.
“I’ve never, ever been through this,” she said. “It was the scariest thing.”
Christy Caruso, who lives in the Indian Trail neighborhood, said two cars that were driving on Shawnee Avenue were struck by trees toppled in the storm. She said crews from Northern Pipeline, which have been installing gas lines in the neighborhood, rescued a father and his infant from one of the cars in what she described as a close call.
The pipeline crews fanned out through the neighborhood, helping neighbors clear streets and driveways, she said.
“Those people are just amazing,” Caruso said.
5,500 lightening strikes
The storm cell that hit Spokane moved in from the southwest just after 4 p.m. and crossed the West Plains into North Spokane, racing northward to Canada.
The weather service reported more than 5,500 lightning strikes in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
Spokane and Coeur d’Alene were placed under severe thunderstorm warnings prior to the storms striking.
By 6 p.m., the line of storms remained well organized and moving across the Canadian border.
Forecaster Ron Miller at the weather service said the Inland Northwest sees such strong thunderstorms about once every seven years. The last strong thunderstorm was in 2012.
The storms were aided by warm sunny weather this morning, just ahead of an advancing low pressure area off the Pacific Ocean.
The warmth carried plenty of moisture in the air. When the low pressure area arrived during peak daytime heating in the afternoon, it sent the warm air skyward allowing it to generate the damaging storms.
“This one was pretty much perfect timing,” Miller said.
This story was reported by Nina Culver, Mike Prager, Wilson Criscione and Jody Lawrence-Turner.