SNOQUALMIE, Wash. – More than 30,000 people were urged to leave their flood-endangered western Washington homes as snowmelt and rain swelled rivers and caused mudslides and avalanches that engulfed neighborhoods and roadways.
Warmer temperatures and heavy rains were rapidly melting the deep snow that dumped on the Cascade mountains over the weekend. Ten inches of snow melted in a 12-hour period at Snoqualmie Pass, according to Andy Haner, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Rising waters led state highway crews to close a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5 around Chehalis on Wednesday evening. The state's three major east-west routes across the Cascade mountains also were closed by avalanches and the threat of more slides.
Authorities feared Interstate 5, which carries 10,000 trucks a day, could be closed for days, just as it was in a similar flood in December 2007. But they hoped to reopen one of the east-west routes sometime Thursday "to get people moving and freight moving," said Transportation Department spokeswoman Alice Fiman.
"It's right up there with some of our most memorable flood events," National Weather Service forecaster Doug McDonnal said Thursday.
Rain tapered down to showers Thursday and drier weather is due Friday, but flooding will remain a problem as overflowing rivers drain. The storm also produced heavy rain and strong wind in northwest Oregon, but by early Thursday, the area managed to avoid the mudslides and severe flooding that battered Washington.
Thursday's forecast called for cooler temperatures and snow in the mountains, with 6 to 10 inches possible, and the rain to mostly end in the lowlands.
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.
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 could create problems for the city's wastewater treatment plant.
State emergency officials said voluntary evacuations were recommended for Snoqualmie, a riverside town 25 miles east of Seattle, and for the southwest Washington cities 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.
"It came up so fast this time, there wasn't really time to think about it," she said.
An avalanche of snow and mud about 100 yards wide damaged some weekend recreation homes in the Hyak area east of Snoqualmie Pass. All homes at Hyak and condominium complexes at the base of the ski area were evacuated.
The debris field spanned eight houses, including one that was severely damaged, and two occupants of that home were treated for minor injuries, said Matt Cowan, chief of Snoqualmie Pass Fire and Rescue.
Chris Caviezel, who has lived at Snoqualmie Pass for about seven years, said conditions were the worst he has seen. "We're getting avalanches and we're being flooded," Caviezel said.
In Snoqualmie, kayakers paddled in the street as city officials urged residents in the flood plain of the Snoqualmie River to leave before they became trapped.
Rachel Myers stood across a flooded parking lot from her home and waited for her father to pick her up in a boat. She said her family has lived in the house since her great-grandmother built it, but they've decided this will be their last winter there.
"With flood after flood, it just gets more ruined every time," Myers 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 wind 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.