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Washington's Mount Rainier National Park May Remain Closed for Weeks After Severe Flooding

Nearly 18 inches of rain in 36 hours.

That's how much fell at Mount Rainier National Park, one of the crown jewels of the Pacific Northwest, and more rain and snow is forecast through the weekend.

The deluge on Monday and Tuesday swamped roads and bridges, cut power and sewer lines, and forced park officials to close the gates for the first time in 26 years. The basic cleanup will take weeks, and in some places, park officials say they won't know the extent of the damage until after the snow melts in the spring.

"Some places get that much rain in a year, and we had it in 36 hours," said park spokeswoman Lee Taylor. "When we were finally able to get out and start assessing the damage, it was a very sobering day."

The Pineapple Express storm, named for its origin in warm Pacific waters, wreaked havoc across the region. It damaged hundreds of homes, washed out a major highway near Oregon's Mount Hood, closed part of the North Cascades Highway in Washington, and was blamed for at least three deaths in the two states.

Most river levels were down on Friday, and the National Weather Service said the precipitation through the weekend wasn't expected to cause more flooding, in part, because most falling in the mountains was expected to be snow. Still, recovery and damage assessments, particularly in hard-hit parts of Western Washington, are likely to take weeks.

At Mount Rainier, the Nisqually River engulfed the main scenic highway through the park and left a quarter-mile gash in Nisqually Road. The river now flows where a campground once stood.

All other roads in the park were already closed for the winter, but they also suffered extensive damage. Search-and-rescue teams were tracking down elk hunters between Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens who could find themselves trapped by washed out roads or mudslides.

The Nisqually River also took out the main power line, cutting electricity for the western half of the park, as well as the main sewer line at Longmire, where a historic inn sits.

"An optimistic estimate for repairs is two weeks for some road access. Utility repair work could still take longer, which would mean there are still no services at Longmire," Taylor said. "We're hoping we can have normal operations for the Christmas holiday."

Christmas is typically a busy time at Mount Rainier, with rangers offering guided snowshoe walks, cross-country skiers hitting the trails and sledders taking to the base of the mountain. The now closed Nisqually Road is key to those activities, as well as to construction work on the Paradise Inn, an aging lodge built in 1917.

Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga flew over the area Thursday to assess the damage and was working to determine a cost estimate for repairs. In the meantime, crews were furiously working to fix the main road.

"Our focus is on the winter access route, so we can get that open again," Taylor said. "But if we aren't able to do repair work now, then it will have to wait until the spring melt-out, and that could delay some of the spring openings here."