Northwest storms ease drought fears

Donna Blankinship and Lisa Baumann
Associated Press

Seattle — Fierce Northwest storms that sent rivers bursting from their banks, closed roads and produced a rare tornado have had one positive effect — easing summer drought concerns.

The storms that killed at least two people in Oregon this week were tapering a bit, but forecasters said mudslide danger on the saturated hills would remain high through the weekend.

A rain-soaked hillside collapsed Wednesday north of Portland, Oregon, on the main highway connecting Washington and Oregon, stranding thousands of motorists on Interstate 5. Road closures in both states frustrated drivers who were trying to navigate alternate routes that took them hours out of their way.

“It was crazy, and I was scared,” said Diane Smith of Lacey, Washington, who was stuck for three hours behind the I-5 landslide about 25 miles north of Portland, and then drove a steep, windy road to get around the slide.

Smith said her detour onto the Green Mountain Road above Woodland, Washington, was by accident. After she followed directions and left the freeway, it was unclear which of three routes to take.

Smith, who was driving her 6-year-old grandson and his other grandmother back from Vancouver, Washington, probably made the wrong choice, according to the Washington Department of Transportation. Officials used social media to discourage drivers from taking the mountain road without guardrails to get around the slide, but as Smith points out, she was driving, not checking her cellphone for updates.

She wasn’t sure if she was going the right way until she made it back to the freeway.

Her grandson declared the experience an adventure to remember.

The massive landslide blocked the interstate lanes Wednesday after days of pounding rain. Two lanes were back open by Thursday night, and officials said they hoped to have all three reopened by late Sunday.

More rain is on the way through the weekend.

The moisture is helping to fill reservoirs earlier and recharging the groundwater, said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service based in Mount Vernon.

But “a lot of this rain is going down hard so it’s flowing straight through the snowpack, and it’s not adding to it,” he added.

Much of Washington’s water supply depends on mountain snowpack that builds over winter, and melts in spring and summer.

The latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor on Thursday showed the area west of the Cascade Mountains in Washington is no longer in drought.

Cities like Seattle, Everett and Tacoma implemented water shortage plans when unseasonably dry summer conditions left the region parched.

The storms also spawned a tornado that touched down Thursday in the southwest Washington city of Battle Ground, National Weather Service officials in Portland said.

Officials say the tornado damaged 36 homes and two commercial buildings as well as snapping power poles, downing trees and blowing away fences in a path 2 miles long.

The storms prompted Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to declare a state of emergency Thursday for 13 counties hit hardest with damage. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide emergency Wednesday.

Steady rain of the usual winter variety is expected in Oregon and Washington over the next few days. The major storms have shifted south into California.