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Windstorm pummels Spokane, killing two people and causing widespread blackouts

There are at least 158,000 customers without power this morning as Avista crews scrambled in the wake of Tuesday’s windstorm.

Schools were closed around the region.

Area colleges, including Gonzaga, Eastern, WSU Spokane and Whitworth will not hold classes.

Original story from Tuesday night:

A brutal storm packing near hurricane-force winds slammed into the Inland Northwest late Tuesday afternoon, toppling hundreds of trees that killed two women in Spokane, blowing off roofs, grounding airplanes and causing record numbers of power outages.

As the storm hit, winds were so strong that emergency management leaders in Spokane County asked all residents to take shelter where they were.

One woman was killed by a falling tree near the 1500 block of West 14th Avenue on the South Hill. Another woman was killed when a tree fell on a car 5 miles east of Cheney on state Highway 904.

More than 206,000 customers lost power. Avista officials said it will take days to restore it all.

Closures

Spokane roads and neighborhoods were choked with downed trees and blinded by power outages.

With damage widespread, colleges and school districts were contemplating whether to cancel classes on Wednesday.

Spokane Public Schools, including before- and after-school Express day care, will be closed Wednesday, the district announced Tuesday night on Twitter.

Whitworth University announced it would be closed on Wednesday. The Cheney, Nine Mile Falls, Central Valley and Liberty school districts announced that Wednesday classes will start two hours late. Central Valley also canceled morning kindergarten and elementary school conferences.

Two deaths

A tree fell on and killed a woman on West 14th Avenue near Walnut Street on Tuesday afternoon. The tree, which completely blocked the road, came up by its roots and took out several power lines.

According to a police news release, Spokane Fire Department responded to calls that a tree was on top of a woman shortly after 3:30 p.m. They attempted to save her but were unable to. The woman was in her 50s.

Hours later another woman died after a tree fell and struck her car about 5 miles east of Cheney along Highway 904, according to the Washington State Patrol.

Record power outages

Avista officials said Tuesday’s storm caused the largest outage in the utility company’s history. About 168,400 customers were without power at the peak of outages.

Adding in Inland Power & Light Co. and Kootenai Electric Cooperative, more than 206,000 customers were without power Tuesday evening in the Inland Northwest.

This storm far surpasses the notorious November 1996 ice storm that crippled Spokane for days. That storm cut power to 100,000 customers at its peak.

Debbie Simock, spokeswoman for Avista, said it was not clear Tuesday evening how long it will take to fully restore power. Some of the larger transmission lines were put out. Repairs to those could yield relatively quick power restoration for some customers.

She said improvements in Avista’s organizational and dispatching structures since ice storm should help speed repairs.

Contractor crews are expected to come to Spokane to help in the restorations. In addition, contractor crews currently working on other projects will shift to repairs.

“It looks like Spokane and Kootenai counties were right in the bullseye,” Simock said.

However, 4,000 Avista customers in Stevens County also lost power.

Toppling trees

On the South Hill, normally brightly lit streets were black, and drivers gingerly made their way through the maze created by the debris and inoperable traffic lights.

At the north end of Manito Park, a tree blocked 25th Avenue, causing cars to circle back on either side. Cameron Napora, with Napora Contracting, had pulled over and was working on the tree with his chainsaw. Two local boys – Devin Doneen and Hunter Tripp, both 17 – helped haul the wreckage from the road.

As Napora sliced off limb after limb from the main trunk, he kept an eye on the dancing tree behind him, which leaned toward him and the teens with each dangerous gust. He was clearing the road just wide enough for fire trucks, Napora said, and planned to pack it up as soon as possible.

As he cut, a towering tree in the park to the south snapped and fell into the forest. He kept sawing.

At 29th Avenue and Manito Boulevard, a large conifer lay across the road as, not 50 feet away, another appeared to implode and crumble upon itself. A truck drove across the grassy median, looking for a way out of the treed boulevard.

Just east of the intersection of 29th Avenue and Thor Street, another tree blocked the road as firefighters circled its upturned roots with a chainsaw clearly not suited for the job.

Ashley Sundin was in the kitchen of her South Hill home when she heard a loud rumble followed by a crack. Then a pine tree crashed onto her house, directly over the kitchen.

“It happened really fast, I barely had time to register that it happened,” Sundin said.

Sundin grabbed her dog and ran into the other room. Sundin, who moved to Spokane a year ago, bought her home roughly six months ago.

“Welcome to home ownership,” she said.

Elsewhere on the South Hill, trees, ripped out by their roots, blocked roads, smaller branches, garbage cans and basketball hoops lay haphazardly and stoplights remained dark.

Courteney Haynes said she found out right around 3 p.m. that a tree in her yard was ripped from its roots. She raced home from Gonzaga, where she works, to find her yard in shambles.

“Isn’t this nuts,” she said. “It brought them up by the roots. I’m just glad it didn’t fall on my house.”

Haynes said she was going to pick up her two kids and stay in a hotel.

“I don’t really think it’s safe to be driving,” she said.

Like Sundin, James South stood on his lawn Tuesday afternoon looking at the tree that fell and ricocheted off the side of his house, landing right where he normally parks his motorcycle. Across the street elementary age children lined up in the middle of Roosevelt Elementary field, well away from any trees.

“My son’s coming out of school right now,” South said.

He pointed at a downed power line snaking across his yard, and said that he was going to wait to see his son home safely.

Roofs blow off

On the east side of town, SpokAnimal CARE’s metal roof tore off early in the storm. It continued to whip around and slap against the structure as the wind blew. A piece came free, a dangerous piece of shrapnel, uncontained and drifting on powerful gusts.

Dori Peck, the group’s development director, said when the roof first came free “it sounded like a cannon.”

Eight dogs and 15 cats were in the building at the time, but were uninjured, if frightened, and moved to the kennels next door.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Peck said. “We’re supposed to get 100 dogs from L.A. this weekend. I’m not sure what will happen now.”

The roof at Glyph Language Services, at 125 S. Wall St., collapsed shortly after 4 p.m.

Four employees were inside at the time. All made it out of the building without injuries.

“All of a sudden, there was a big gust, then boom,” said employee Darryl Burgess.

Multiple police cars and fire engines were on scene. Neighboring restaurant Europa closed as a result of the collapse.

The winds even delivered a blow to the downtown WSU Spokane campus.

Chancellor Lisa Brown reported Tuesday night that the historic Jensen Byrd building’s roof was damaged.

Attractions damaged

Extensive damage was reported to the displays at the Chinese Lantern Festival exhibits at Riverfront Park. But the 7-week event ended on Sunday.

At the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, a Styrofoam Lego installation was thrown to the ground by the gusting wind. The whole installation weighed about 50 pounds said facilities manager Mark Webber.

“Oh, my god, they were working on them for a couple of months,” said museum spokeswoman Alison Highberger. “They are very rare. You can’t just order one up from the Lego company.”

The 7-feet-tall structures promoting the show “Nature Connects: Art with Lego Bricks,” which runs through Feb. 7, features large Lego installation pieces by Sean Kenney and local Lego enthusiasts including children. Those are safe inside the museum.

Flights canceled

Passengers at the Spokane International Airport waited Tuesday to see if flights were canceled while the storm pounded outside.

An announcement over the intercom system shortly after 5 p.m. informed passengers that the airport was suspending all operations for the rest of the day.

However, airport spokesman Todd Woodard said that flights were still arriving and departing from Spokane, although some flights were canceled. Woodard said he didn’t know of any damage to airplanes, although he expected the roof to be damaged.

Paul Santos, who works for Big Ass Fans, was on a business trip to Spokane. His flight to Auburn, Oregon, was canceled.

“Act of gods,” he said. “Can’t do anything about it.”

A fellow passenger, Beth Williamson, was supposed to fly to Fairbanks, Alaska, Tuesday night. Like Santos, her flight was canceled. She seemed calm about the flight, joking that she wasn’t too upset to not be flying to 22-degree Fairbanks.

Early warnings

Law enforcement and fire services were overwhelmed by calls Tuesday afternoon, and authorities sent out an alert asking residents to call 911 only for life-threatening emergencies.

Earlier, emergency responders called on employers and school officials to let employees and students go home early before the expected start of the high winds around 4 p.m., and many locations followed the request. City and county government sent nonessential workers home. Libraries closed, as did some credit unions. Colleges and universities canceled late afternoon classes and school districts canceled after-school activities.

The National Weather Service posted high wind warnings for the region with gusts of 70 mph possible in lower elevations and stronger gusts in the mountains, a forecast that proved on the mark.

Spokane International Airport recorded a gust of 71 mph Tuesday afternoon, 4 mph less than hurricane-force.

This story was reported by Mike Prager, Eli Francovich, Nicholas Deshais, Kip Hill and Nina Culver.


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