Published January 19, 2012
SEATTLE – A monster Pacific Northwest storm coated the Seattle area in a thick layer of ice Thursday and brought much of the state to a standstill, sending hundreds of cars spinning out of control, temporarily shutting down the airport and knocking down so many trees that members of the Washington State Patrol brought chain saws to work.
Oregon experienced torrential rain that swept away a car from a grocery store parking lot, killing a mother and her 1-year-old son. East of Seattle, a man was killed by a falling tree as he was backing an all-terrain vehicle out of a backyard shed, authorities said.
The snow, ice and heavy rains continued wreak havoc in the region a day after the system brought a huge snowfall to parts of Washington state. The storm also raised worries that flooding could become a broader concern in days to come.
"It's like a storm in slow motion that keeps happening again and again," said Puget Sound Energy spokesman Roger Thompson.
Amtrak suspended train service Thursday between Seattle and Portland, Ore. Officials in Spokane declared a snow emergency, banning parking along arterials and bus routes beginning Thursday evening. The City of Seattle asked people to get home before dark if possible, fearing even worse icing conditions by nightfall. And authorities told pedestrians to be extra careful on sidewalks and to look out for "falling ice from trees, buildings and power lines."
Freezing rain and ice pellets caused numerous accidents in the Seattle area, where drivers are mostly inexperienced with driving in snow or ice. The State Patrol said it had responded to about 2,300 accidents in a 24-hour period ending at 9 a.m. Thursday, roughly quadruple the average number.
The last widespread freezing rain in Seattle was in December 1996, said National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Michalski.
The weather service used the Emergency Alert System to break into Thursday morning broadcasts with an ice storm warning for the Seattle area and southwest Washington.
The state Transportation Department closed one highway because of falling trees that also took out power lines, and the Seattle Times reported that about 250,000 were without power in the greater Seattle area Thursday, while Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire declared a state of emergency, authorizing the use of National Guard troops if necessary.
Ice closed Sea-Tac Airport completely in the early morning before one runway was reopened. Lines hundreds of people long snaked around nearly every ticket counter at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, with many passengers on their cellphones as they tried furiously to rebook their flights. Reader boards showed the vast majority of flights canceled or delayed.
Cabbies struggled to get people from the airport and safely to their homes or hotels. Chris Van Dyk of Yellow Cab said "it's like servicing Dante's part of hell. It's an ice cube, it's just unreal."
Van Dyk said drivers tried to get people as close as they could to their destinations, but when they entered the side streets, they kept getting stuck.
Braving the icy Queen Anne hill in Seattle, commercial truck driver Darrin Sjostrand was loading his Toyota Prius to drive his wife to the airport.
"It was supposed to warm up," he said. "Ice is kind of the great equalizer. It doesn't matter if you have a four-wheel drive, you're going to slide."
Authorities also worried about flooding in the coming days as temperatures warm up. Rain was forecast throughout the weekend.
"It's a very dangerous situation," said Brad Colman, the meteorologist in charge of the weather service office in Seattle.
Oregon didn't receive the snowfall that Washington did but got plenty of rain. Rising water from heavy rains swept a car carrying four people into an overflowing creek in Albany on Wednesday night. Two people escaped, but one child's body was recovered early Thursday morning, and family members in the afternoon located his mother's body, authorities said.
"The water just got high so fast," said fire department spokeswoman Wanda Omdahl. "It's a big tragedy."
Witness Adam Chance said he arrived just after 7 p.m. in the parking lot of the grocery store and saw the trunk of the car submerge in swirling brown water. A few people standing on the banks waded in but were unable to contend with the violent current drawing water and debris into the mouth of the culvert.
"They got sucked into the pipe," Chance said. "(The culvert) was just sucking down like a straw."
Oregon State climatologist Kathie Dello said the Hawaiian "Pineapple Express" is responsible for the wet weather. The system is creating a fire hose-like effect, dumping a concentrated stream of Pacific moisture on a small area in the western Willamette Valley.
Another Willamette Valley town, Scio, contended with floodwaters and many residents were being evacuated as the city manager said water was pouring down Main Street.
Officials in the city of Turner have issued a voluntary evacuation order to residents, asking them to flee to higher ground as floodwaters from the rising Mill Creek swept through town.
To the west of Oregon's Coast Range, residents were being moved out of Mapleton, with a population of about 900.
Near Issaquah, Wash., a man in his 60s backing an all-terrain vehicle out of a shed was killed by a falling tree, King County sheriff's Sgt. Cindi West said.
Washington State University in Pullman was closed. The University of Washington also canceled Thursday classes at three campuses, including Seattle.
The storm caused hundreds of roadway accidents, but no fatalities. On the interstate north of Seattle, a Transportation Department worker responding to an accident was injured in crash. The 36-year-old man was taken to a Seattle hospital and listed in satisfactory condition. The Transportation Department closed state Route 18 near Issaquah because of falling trees.
"We want to make sure all the limbs that are going to come down, come down," said DOT spokeswoman Alice Fiman in Olympia.
Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for Gregoire, said even though an emergency declaration has been issued, the National Guard has not been called up. Shagren said what sparked the proclamation was concern over truck drivers carrying dairy products not being able to drive more than 12 hours a day due to federal regulations.
Cleanup work at the Hanford nuclear reservation was called off for the day, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory closed as well.
At a bus stop near the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard, Canadian transplant Jennifer Hastings waited for the downtown bus.
"I didn't buy snow tires. This is Seattle. We were like, 'It doesn't snow here,'" said Hastings, who moved here last year.
Cooper reported from Albany, Ore. Associated Press writers Doug Esser, Ted Warren, Shannon Dininny, Rachel La Corte, Nigel Duara and Nicholas K. Geranios contributed to this report.