SNOQUALMIE, Wash. – Rain and high winds lashed Washington state Wednesday, causing widespread avalanches, mudslides, flooding and road closures as the heavy snowfall that has buried parts of the state began to rapidly melt.
More than 30,000 people were told to leave their homes in flood-endangered areas across western Washington as authorities warned of heavy flooding. Rising waters prompted state highway crews to close a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5 around Chehalis on Wednesday evening.
"This is going to be a memorable flood event," said Andy Haner, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Seattle.
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Fire trucks rolled through Orting, about 10 miles southeast of Tacoma, with loudspeakers 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. It was forecast to crest Thursday.
"They expect the town of Orting to go under water," Pierce County sheriff's Detective Ed Troyer said, adding that the flooding could be the worst in more than a decade.
Barbara Nelson, a spokeswoman for Pierce County Emergency Management, said Wednesday night she was not aware of any major damage in the Orting area, but added the extent of damage likely would not be evident until daylight.
"At this point, the main water in the city itself is a result of the rain and not the river overtopping any levees," she said.
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 and offices in that city near Tacoma and Interstate 5.
Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma declared a civil emergency because of flood risks at Puyallup River.
Throughout the state, about 60 highways were closed, including all east-west passes across the Cascade Mountains. A 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5 near Chehalis in southwestern Washington was also closed Wednesday evening.
Amtrak passenger train service out of Seattle was suspended due to mudslides, Amtrak said in a news release.
Warmer temperatures and heavy rains were melting snow dumped on the mountains during a weekend storm, with 10 inches of snow melting in a 12-hour period at Snoqualmie Pass, about 50 miles east of Seattle, Haner said.
In Snoqualmie, a town 25 miles east of Seattle, kayakers paddled in the street as city officials urged residents in the flood plain of the Snoqualmie River to leave before they became trapped.
Volunteers gathered at a city park to stuff sandbags for residents to protect their homes.
The Snoqualmie River at Carnation, in the rural Snoqualmie Valley, was measured at 61.3 feet Thursday night, 7.3 feet above flood stage and a record for measurements kept since 1932, weather service meteorologist Jay Albrecht said.
June Garvin said she lived high on a ridge outside the danger area but wanted to help.
"The river came up so fast that for some people, sorry to say, sandbags aren't going to do a darn thing," Garvin said. "The water's going to get in if it wants to."
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.
As of early Wednesday evening, Marblemount saw nearly 6 inches of rain and almost 7 inches of rain fell at Snoqualmie Pass in the past 24 hours.
The weather service predicted another 4 to 8 inches of rain would fall on the coast and Cascades through Wednesday night and 1 to 3 inches elsewhere in the region.
Several dozen people and a number of pets were rescued by boat Wednesday morning after being trapped by high water outside Orting, Pierce County sheriff's Detective Ed Troyer said.
The weather service warned that rain-saturated snow would place even more weight on Spokane rooftops, increasing the threat of collapse. The city's schools will be closed Thursday, giving its 29,000 students a third unscheduled day off this week.
The state Fish and Wildlife Department said six wild elk that took refuge in a storage barn in Metaline Falls were killed Tuesday when the snow-laden roof collapsed. Officers said it was rare for elk to be so desperate that they would enter a barn.
Over the past two weeks, extreme temperatures in Alaska — 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.
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.
Snow, sleet and freezing rain made roads hazardous across the Great Lakes region into New England on Wednesday, forcing the closure of hundreds of schools.
The weather service issued winter storm warnings and ice storm warnings from Pennsylvania into Maine, and winter weather advisories for parts of Michigan and Ohio.
Michigan police blamed four traffic deaths on ice-covered roads.
Many schools in upstate New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire also closed or opened late because of snow.