Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Troops use rafts to evacuate flooded Oregon town

PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) -- National Guard troops evacuated residents in a flooded town and tens of thousands of people remained without power Tuesday after back-to-back storms pounded the Pacific Northwest, killing five people.


Floodwaters surround houses Tuesday in Centralia, Washington.

Troops with the Oregon Air National Guard used inflatable rafts to evacuate flooded residents in Vernonia, a mountain timber town on the Nehalem River, about 35 miles northwest of Portland.

"They're moving down the streets, and through the backyards," said Maj. Mike Braibish, spokesman for the National Guard.

Vernonia, which has about 2,200 residents, had been largely cut off by landslides that blocked roads into the community, but Guard trucks with high clearance were able to get in late Monday and more were being sent, Braibish said.

Still, communications were difficult. "There are no phone lines or land lines available in Vernonia," said Hyla Ridenour, spokeswoman for Columbia River Fire and Rescue in nearby St. Helens.

The storm that hit Monday smacked the region with hurricane-force winds and several inches of rain, and was blamed for five deaths in Oregon and Washington state. It came only a day after another severe system moved through Sunday.

By Tuesday, the second system had moved on to the Upper Plains and Midwest, where it was predicted to bring new snow. In North Dakota, the National Weather Service said parts of the state could get up to 9 inches of snow.

Towns on the coast were hit hardest by the storms. Red Cross shelters in western Oregon were housing 556 people as of midnight, said spokeswoman Lise Harwin.

The governors of Washington and Oregon declared states of emergency, which could speed relief efforts in flood-hit areas. The National Weather Service said 3 to 6 inches of rain had fallen across much of western Washington. The 24-hour rain total for Bremerton, Washington, was 10.78 inches.

In Washington, some 130 people had to be rescued from flooded areas by Coast Guard helicopters. Mudslides and floods blocked roads, and Interstate 5, the principal north-south route along the West Coast, was closed near Centralia because of about 3 feet of water over the road. Many schools and government offices were closed for a second day. Photo See photos of the storm damage »

Mudslides also halted Amtrak passenger train service between Portland and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Nearly 75,000 customers lost power in Washington, and more than 50,000 were still without power Tuesday morning, emergency management officials said. In Oregon, Portland-based Pacific Power said about 36,000 customers were still without power.

Power companies said electricity may not be restored to some areas for three or four days. More stiff winds were likely, but nothing like the blasts that exceeded 120 miles mph at the height of the storm.

Five deaths were blamed on the storm. In Oregon, a 90-year-old woman died after suffering what Tillamook County medical examiner Dr. Paul Betlinski called "a weather-related heart attack" as she evacuated. In the same area, a truck was swept away by floodwaters, and the driver was reported dead.

In Washington, a man in Aberdeen died when a tree fell on him as he was trying to clear another downed tree. Another man died in Montesano when the cutoff of electricity left him without the oxygen equipment he needed, officials said.

A man in Mason County died Monday night when he was buried in a building hit by a mudslide, Kyle Herman, spokesman for the Washington State Emergency Management Division, said Tuesday.

Mudslides blocked numerous roads and forced an undetermined number of residents to evacuate condominiums, apartments and houses in Seattle, at least nine houses in suburban Burien and several mobile homes in Shelton.

In Olympia, the rain Monday turned a normally small creek into a roiling, muddy surge of water that tore through a wall at the Ranch House BBQ restaurant. Tables and booths were strewn across the street.

Christy Romo, who lives just up the hill, said she could hear the floodwaters coming and started packing before the first floor of her cabin was inundated.

"I knew I wouldn't have much time," Romo said. "I heard a bang, and then saw the water rising quickly."

The back-to-back storm fronts Sunday and Monday were among the Northwest's worst in recent memory. The first storm marched across the country, killing at least 15 people, mostly in traffic accidents, and dumping snow from the Midwest to the Northeast.

Lake-effect snow storms delivered a first blast of winter overnight Tuesday to a large part of upstate New York, dumping up to a foot of snow on some areas and forcing schools to close.

"There's people who will be cursing this stuff as they drive to work today. Not me," said Chip Sutton, a 45-year-old mechanic who was plowing parking lots and driveways in Syracuse. "I'm tired, but I'm happy, and a few dollars richer."

The winter weather also spelled success for ski areas in New England that suffered through an abysmal winter last year. In Vermont, 7 inches of snow welcomed skiers and snowboarders Monday.

"It's not snow. It's white gold," said Christopher Francis, innkeeper at Ye Olde England Inne, a 30-room establishment in the shadow of Vermont's Stowe Mountain Resort.

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