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Washington state braces for record flooding

A Pacific storm dumped heavy rains Monday on Western Washington, with major flood warnings issued for 11 rivers and high winds forecast for much of the state. Gov. Chris Gregoire declared a state of emergency for 18 counties.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

A windy Pacific storm dumped heavy rain Monday on western Washington, raising the threat of record-breaking flooding and closing the main road in Mount Rainier National Park.

A 20-year-old elk hunter from Seattle was found dead after his pickup truck was swept into the Cowlitz River south of Mount Rainier, authorities said.

Gov. Chris Gregoire declared a state of emergency for 18 counties, authorizing the National Guard to activate and the state Emergency Management Division to coordinate assistance.

Officials at Mount Rainier National Park, which had 7 inches of rain Sunday and was expecting 10 more on Monday, closed the main park road, turned visitors away and sent employees home early via the only exit road open.

“We want to prevent visitors getting trapped inside the park. The road is vulnerable to washouts in several key places, and there is only one way out,” superintendent Dave Uberagua said.

A sheriff’s helicopter in Snohomish County, just north of Seattle, rescued several transients stranded on a sandbar where they had been camping.

Evacuations were being encouraged in parts of Skagit County near the Canadian border, with the Skagit River expected to reach record levels, county spokesman Dan Berentson said.

The National Weather Service warned county officials to expect worse conditions than in 2003, when flooding caused $17 million in property damage in Concrete and 3,400 households were evacuated, he said. Residents began showing up at one shelter by midday, and a hospital evacuated 15 patients as a precaution.

Pineapple Express arrives
The warm-weather rainstorms, propelled by air currents from Hawaii in a pattern called the Pineapple Express, could cause flooding of record proportions, the weather service said. Several rivers had already jumped their banks.

At least 200 hunters were evacuated from about 65 hunting camps near the Cowlitz River.

As of early Monday afternoon, Stampede Pass on the Cascade crest east of Seattle had 4½ inches of rain in the previous 24 hours, while Seattle-Tacoma International Airport recorded more than 2½ inches. The forecast called for 6 to 10 inches in the Cascades and about 3 inches in the Seattle area in the 24 hours ending Monday night, with most rivers expected to crest Tuesday.

"We are looking at a very significant storm," said Nora Leyde, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers, which was sandbagging several rivers.

Besides the Stillaguamish, the National Weather Service issued flood warnings for the Tolt, Cowlitz, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, Skagit, White, Elwa, Nooksack, Puyallup, Carbon, Bogachiel and Satsop rivers. In most populated areas the crest was expected Tuesday.

KING-TV reported that evacuations were under way in the city of Snoqualmie. The nearby Snoqualmie Falls was reportedly flowing at a rate of 69,000 cubic feet per second, eclipsing the old record of 50,000 cubic feet per second, KING-TV reported.

Wind warnings
A less serious flood watch was issued for the less populated eastern slopes of the Cascade Range, and wind warnings were issued for gusts to 45 mph in much of Eastern Washington and to nearly 60 mph west of the Cascades. Gale force winds were forecast for most of the state's marine waters, including Puget Sound.

The Lewis County sheriff's office said a hunter was missing in the Cowlitz River near Packwood, A group of elk hunters was being evacuated and one vehicle backed onto a riverbank, which collapsed, deputies said.

Urban flood warnings were issued for clogged storm drains and overflowing streams in Western Washington, and coastal flooding from heavy surf and high tides. High water over a road blocked the north entrance to the parking garage at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Monday morning, said airport spokesman Bob Parker.

The Hood Canal floating bridge linking the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas was closed for four hours overnight as winds gusted to more than 40 mph.

Mud, rock slides
A mudslide early Monday closed one lane of U.S. Highway 101 near Lake Crescent on the Olympic Peninsula. A stretch of U.S. Highway 395 north of Spokane was closed for nine hours Sunday after boulders, apparently loosened by the wet weather, rumbled onto the road and hit a car and a truck. Occupants of both vehicles escaped serious injury.

National Weather Service forecasters issued flood watches for all of Western Washington except Whidbey and Camano islands and the San Juans, and more serious flood warnings for heavily populated King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

Corps of Engineers emergency management teams began preparing late Sunday for flood assignments, especially in the most threatened areas in Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties, which extend north of Seattle to the Canadian border.