SNOQUALMIE, Wash. – The rain subsided and the snowmelt lessened Thursday, giving hope to flood-endangered towns in Western Washington that the worst might soon be over. But major highways in the state remained blocked by slides and high water, and thousands of residents were still out of their homes.
Just 13 months after major floods devastated much of the region, officials feared this round of widespread flooding would be even worse.
"I think we're seeing an all-timer, or as bad as anyone has seen," said Rob Harper, a spokesman for the state Division of Emergency Management.
"It's right up there with some of our most memorable flood events," National Weather Service forecaster Doug McDonnal said. "The thing that's kind of amazing in the past few years is how many flood episodes we've had."
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A 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5 around Chehalis was closed Wednesday evening high water, 3 feet deep in some places. All east-west highway passes through the Cascades also were closed by avalanches and the threat of more slides.
State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said I-5 would remain closed at least through Friday as would Interstate 90 through Snoqualmie Pass, the main east-west route.
Hammond said rain-saturated snow on the pass 50 miles east of Seattle made the avalanche danger too high for crews to work.
Scores of trucks were stranded at truck stops and waysides along the freeways. Hammond said about 10,000 trucks a day travel I-5 alone and the financial impact of the closure on freight movement is about $4 million a day.
No serious injuries were reported from the flooding that began Wednesday after warm temperatures and heavy rains rapidly melted deep snow that had dumped on the Cascade mountains over the weekend. Ten inches of snow melted in a 12-hour period at Snoqualmie Pass, according to weather service meteorologist Andy Haner.
The National Weather Service posted flood warnings for about two dozen rivers in 14 Western Washington counties, with flood warnings also in effect for seven counties on the east side of the state. The service said rain-soaked hillsides were at high risk for landslides, and Amtrak passenger train service out of Seattle was suspended due to slide danger.
Flooding in December 2007 closed I-5 at Chehalis for four days and caused widespread damage in the area halfway between Seattle and Portland, Ore.
Hammond visited the scene Thursday morning and said: "It's just deja vu, I tell you. Water everywhere."
The Chehalis River was forecast to crest Thursday night and by Friday crews planned to use pumps and breach a levy to help the water drain out.
McDonnal said that with much of the rain ending in Western Washington, most rivers should drop below flood stage Friday but some, like the Chehalis, won't return to their banks until the weekend.
A record 2.29 inches of rain fell Wednesday at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and a record 4.82 inches fell at Olympia.
Totals were even higher in the mountains, the headwaters for the rivers. Rainfall totals for the 24 hours ending at 11 p.m. Wednesday included 6.86 inches at Marblemount in the Cascade foothills east of Mount Vernon; 5.85 inches at Glacier, near Mount Baker; and 6.3 inches at Snoqualmie Pass.
In Pierce County, where the greatest numbers of people and businesses were affected, concern was shifting Thursday to the stability of levies and debris-damaged bridges as flooding receded along the Puyallup and other rivers, said Barb Nelson, an emergency management spokeswoman.
Fire trucks rolled through Orting, about 10 miles southeast of Tacoma, with loudspeakers Wednesday, advising everyone to leave the town and surrounding valley, home to about 26,000 people. Sandbags were placed around many downtown homes and businesses as the Puyallup River neared record levels.
Kim and Carl Scanson closed their Around the Corner restaurant when Orting police told them of the recommended evacuation. They sent employees home to care for their families.
"It's scary, but everybody works together in this town," Kim Scanson told The News Tribune as she helped pack sandbags around the city's water treatment plant.
Some residents also left their homes in the nearby towns of Puyallup and Sumner. Fife Mayor Barry Johnson suggested roughly 6,000 people voluntarily leave their homes in that city near Tacoma and Interstate 5.
Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma declared a civil emergency for his city of about 200,000, south of Seattle, largely because of Puyallup River flooding risks to the city's wastewater treatment plant.
People were evacuated by boat from an assisted living center and houses ate Wednesday after levees appeared to be weakening along the Coweeman River in south Kelso, about 40 miles north of Portland, Ore., said Larry Lembree, a Cowlitz County emergency management spokesman.
About 100 to 150 residents of a nursing home in Stanwood, about 45 miles north of Seattle, were moved to a high school because of flooding along the Stillaguamish River, said Christopher Schwarzman, a Snohomish County emergency management spokesman.
State emergency officials said voluntary evacuations were recommended for Snoqualmie, a riverside town 25 miles east of Seattle, and for the southwest Washington towns of Naselle, Packwood and Randle.
The Snoqualmie River at Carnation, in the rural Snoqualmie Valley, was measured at 61.3 feet Wednesday night, 7.3 feet above flood stage and a record for measurements kept since 1932, weather service meteorologist Jay Albrecht said.
In the east, Spokane, already beset by more than 6 feet of snow in the past three weeks, was hit with rain and temperatures in the mid-40s, triggering a flood warning for the area. The city's schools were closed Thursday, giving its 29,000 students a third unscheduled day off this week.
In Oregon, high winds toppled trees along U.S. 26, forcing the highway's closure and stranding some motorists while crews worked to clear the road. The weather service posted flood warnings for areas along several rivers and a flood watch for all of northwest Oregon.
In Alaska, extreme temperatures — 60 below zero in Stevens Village, which is about 90 miles northwest of Fairbanks — have grounded planes, disabled cars, frozen water pipes and even canceled several championship cross country ski races.