Image: Residents remove snow left by plows
Young Kwak  /  AP
Snowplows in Spokane, Wash., have left piles of snow in front of homes, forcing residents like these to dig out — and adding to the tension building here.
updated 1/7/2009 11:44:27 AM ET 2009-01-07T16:44:27

More than 6 feet of snow in the past three weeks has made Spokane residents edgy, and Wednesday brought new problems as melting snow and ice caused flooding and mudslides.

This unusually harsh winter has disrupted schools, traffic, garbage pickup and mail service in the eastern Washington city of 200,000, and tempers are growing short.

Icy roads and ponds of water from melting snow snarled the Wednesday morning commute and schools closed again, giving 29,000 students a second unscheduled day off this week.

"It's an ice rink out there," school spokeswoman Terran Roloff said.

At the same time, heavy rain and temperatures in the mid 40s led the National Weather Service to issue flood warnings in the Spokane area, and mudslides partially blocked three highways south of the city.

Flood warnings also were posted for parts of western Washington and Oregon. Up to 8 inches of rain was forecast on the Washington coast and in the Cascades, where avalanches and the risk of more slides Wednesday closed Interstate 90, Washington's principal east-west route, through Snoqualmie Pass. Water and mudslides also closed other highways in Washington and Oregon.

Spokane has received more than 78 inches of snow — about the height of Michael Jordan — since mid-December. That's far above its average of less than 50 inches for an entire winter. Normally about 16 inches would have fallen at this point. The local record for an entire winter is 93.5 inches set in 1949-50.

Roofs have been collapsing under the weight of the snow, streets are clogged with ice and slush and locals are starting to refer to this as Sno-maggedon.

Help from National Guard
As many as 200 members of the Washington National Guard were being dispatched to the Spokane area to help with snow removal Wednesday, particularly on school rooftops, Laura Lockard, a spokeswoman for Gov. Chris Gregoire, said Tuesday.

Snow rage is getting to some.

One man was arrested by Spokane police after gunshots were fired Monday morning at a private snow plow operator who was clearing a parking lot. Police said the motorist apparently got upset when the plow operator honked his horn.

"It's safe to say that fuses are short, people are frustrated and we are having an increase in neighborhood disputes regarding snow-related issues," said Jennifer DeRuwe, a police spokeswoman.

Hot lines at Spokane Mental Health are getting twice the number of calls from people seeking help, said Staci Cornwell of the agency. Some are from elderly people who need help picking up medications, or with shoveling. Other callers are just agitated.

"In our community, people are getting upset, angry, stressed out because of all this snow," Cornwell said. "There's a pending fear of what else is to come."

Jeff Hastings, a mental health counselor, said people's emotional reserves are becoming drained.

"Then people get angry and irritable and depressed and feel anxiety," Hastings said. "They feel overwhelmed."

$150,000 a day in plows
Treacherous roads are a major complaint. Many are covered with ice, heavily rutted and reduced to one lane by piles of plowed snow.

Mayor Mary Verner said the city is spending an estimated $150,000 a day to operate plows around the clock.

Image: Snow removed from roof
Young Kwak  /  AP
Jason Valentine removes snow off the roof of an apartment complex in Spokane on Tuesday.
Downtown, snow has been piled in the middle of streets in hills that are taller than adults and give the impression of driving in giant slots.

Driving conditions are so bad that most of the region's malls closed early the weekend before Christmas because employees and customers could not reach them. Employers continued to have problems on Tuesday, especially big box stores with flat roofs. Several checked by The Associated Press were closed on Tuesday.

The winter break for schoolchildren started two days early, on Dec. 17, because of snow, and school had been scheduled to resume on Monday before Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich — pointing to a "once in a lifetime winter" — took the unprecedented step of recommending schools remain closed because children could not travel safely.

To the relief of parents, classes did resume on Tuesday, creating gridlock on the streets as school buses, private vehicles and walkers competed for space on roads because sidewalks remain buried.

Rain will add weight to roofs
Weight on roofs is a major problem. The National Weather Service has estimated that the existing snow is placing a load of about 25 pounds per square foot roof on roofs designed to hold 30 to 40 pounds. Rain forecast to follow the snow this week will add significant new weight, the agency said.

That has created a brisk market for day laborers willing to go up on roofs and shovel snow off for at least $15 per hour.

Rising temperatures were already melting snow and creating rivers of water Tuesday afternoon, promising some relief.

"I'm sick of it and ready for it to melt," said Joe Olney, 19, a store clerk.

But two women who work at the Chocolate Apothecary in downtown Spokane have found a coping mechanism.

"We are surrounded by chocolate," said owner Susan Davis. "It's all good in here."

While eastern Washington digs out from under the snow, parts of the western side of the state are shoveling mud.

In Whatcom County, just south of the Canadian border, County Executive Pete Kremen declared an emergency Tuesday night because of mudslides and flooding. Slides hit at least three homes, said Bellingham police Lt. Rick Sucee.

"Because of the heavy, heavy rain we've got urban flooding, we've got mudslides, we've got water over the road, we've got ditches full," Sucee told The Associated Press. "Small creeks are now rivers."

In Orting, south of Tacoma, Pierce County officials activated an automated telephone warning system to urge 700 residents to leave their homes because of the flood danger along the Carbon and Puyallup rivers.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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