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THE NATION

Storm batters Seattle region

At least four die in flooding and record winds, and 1.5 million lose power across the Pacific Northwest.

December 16, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — Severe storms with some of the strongest wind gusts ever recorded in the Seattle area swept across the Pacific Northwest late Thursday and Friday, killing at least four people, closing major roadways and bridges and knocking out power to 1.5 million people in three states.

"I didn't just see trees and bushes blown down, I saw people knocked to the ground," said Carole VanHorn, a nursing aide who was in downtown Seattle on Thursday night. "It was just wild."

Winds gusted up to 69 mph in Seattle, and to 95 mph along the Pacific Coast.

"I've lived here all my life, and I've seen some powerful storms," said Police Chief Flint Wright of Long Beach, which is on a peninsula in the southwestern corner of Washington state. "This one was amazing -- just ferocious.... It sounded like you were inside a jet engine."

Power outages closed most schools in the Seattle area, as well as thousands of businesses, including the printing plant for Seattle's two daily newspapers, the Times and the Post-Intelligencer.

The Seattle Times printed only about 20,000 issues of its earliest edition before the presses shut down. The smaller Post-Intelligencer, produced under a joint operating agreement with a later printing deadline, put out no papers, for only the third time in its history. The paper's roots date to 1863, 26 years before Washington became a state.

"I'm pretty heartbroken," said the Post-Intelligencer's managing editor, David McCumber.

"Any time a newspaper doesn't get in the hands of your readers, you feel pretty bad. And this was a damn good newspaper," packed with storm coverage, McCumber said.

Both newspapers announced Friday that readers could find duplicate electronic pages with full news and advertising content online -- if their power was on.

Carolyn Kelly, president of the Seattle Times Co., which is responsible for printing both of Seattle's daily newspapers, said that the printing plant had two separate power systems, a feature that had worked to keep the presses on during past storms.

"In this unprecedented circumstance," she said in a company statement, "the storm caused the failure of both feeds."

As the storm winds petered out Friday morning and blue skies reappeared along with puffy, placid clouds, repair crews labored to restore light and heat across the region.

By early evening, power was back across much of Seattle and in its close-in suburbs. But, utility officials warned, it might take days to restore power to all of the outlying areas.

Wind knocked over transmission towers and felled power lines across Washington state, in western Oregon and in north Idaho, officials said.

In Seattle's Madison Valley neighborhood, 41-year-old Kate Fleming, an audiobook narrator, was killed when a rush of floodwater trapped her in her home's basement, where she had gone to retrieve equipment she needed for her home-based business, Seattle Fire Department spokeswoman Helen Fitzpatrick said.

Fleming had narrated more than 200 books under her own name as well as under the name Anna Fields, a pseudonym in honor of her great-grandmother.

She won the audiobook industry's 2004 Audie Award for her narration of the novel "All Over Creation," by Ruth Ozeki.

In Tacoma's Commencement Bay, the winds were so strong that they tossed a large barge crane across the Crow's Nest Marina, ripping through a breakwater and causing a number of pleasure craft to sink.

"The barge wound up on the beach and damaged some homes there," said Verne Wadsworth, a co-owner of the marina. "I've never seen anything quite like it."

Allen Kam, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle, said the 69-mph gust recorded at 1 a.m. Friday at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was the strongest wind gust there in the 60 years such records have been kept.

It broke the old mark of 65 mph set in January 1993 during what is known here as the Inaugural Day Storm because it happened the day Bill Clinton was sworn in as president.

However, in November 1962, the wind may have been even stronger: It was so powerful that it broke the recording equipment, Kam said. "So all we can say is that the 69 is the strongest speed ever recorded" at the airport.

Coming on top of the drenching November, which saw the most rain in any month in the 115 years Seattle has kept records, the new storm caused several mudslides and overloaded storm and sewer systems.

Some treatment stations in Seattle were so overwhelmed that hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage mixed with rainwater were flushed into Puget Sound.

"The system took care of the first million gallons," said Chuck Clarke, director of Seattle Public Utilities, at a news conference. "It didn't take care of the second or third or probably four millionth of gallons. You cannot design infrastructure to deal with a storm of that magnitude."

sam.howe.verhovek@latimes.com

Times researcher Lynn Marshall contributed to this report.

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