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Deadly wind, rain slam Seattle area

Fierce winds and heavy rain blasted the Seattle area Thursday night starting at the height of rush hour, causing flooding, closing freeways, knocking out power and leaving at least three people dead.
/ Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Fierce winds and heavy rain blasted the Seattle area Thursday night starting at the height of rush hour, causing flooding, closing freeways, knocking out power and leaving at least three people dead. At one point the storm threatened the Seattle Seahawks' rare weeknight game at Qwest Field.

Nearly an inch of rain fell in the area in just one hour, between 4 and 5 p.m., and cars floated on Mercer Street under the Aurora Avenue overpass.

At least three people were killed. A Seattle woman died after she was trapped in her flooded Madison Valley basement. As water rose to the ceiling, firefighters cut a hole in the floor above and pulled her out, but she died at a hospital. Two people died in Pierce County because of falling trees.

Wind gusts reaching 63 mph were reported on the Evergreen Point Bridge on state Route 520, and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport had gusts of 53 mph.

Late Thursday, transportation officials closed the Evergreen Point Bridge and the Hood Canal Bridge because the winds were whipping waves over the bridge decks. The 520 bridge will be closed through the rush-hour commute this morning.

About 25,000 Seattle City Light customers, most in South Seattle and Green Lake, were without power as of 11 p.m.

A City Light spokeswoman said 200 employees were on call for repair work and another 100 were on standby.

By early evening, more than 2 inches of rain had fallen, with up to 3 inches in some areas.

Standing water forced the closure of Interstate 5 at Mercer Street, covered multiple lanes of I-5 and I-405 at many locations and shut down dozens of streets.

The downpour flooded the newly remodeled lobby and the tunnel in the King County Courthouse and caused flooding on Rainier Avenue South and on Delridge Way Southwest. A mudslide moved down toward Elliott Avenue on Queen Anne Hill near West Olympic Place and Ninth Avenue North.

Dennis D'Amico, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle, said the ground is already saturated, so heavy rainfall easily overwhelms the systems in place for handling runoff.

"We've had some embedded thunderstorms that dropped impressive amounts of water," said D'Amico.

The extremely heavy rain that fell in one hour Thursday, and not the total rainfall, was the biggest problem, because it's mostly a surge of water that causes flooding, D'Amico said.

The weather service issued warnings for some areas prone to flash flooding and an "excessive runoff" warning for Seattle and other urban areas.

The weather agency issued a flood warning for the Skokomish River in Mason County and a flood watch for six rivers -- the Snoqualmie, Tolt, Cowlitz, Deschutes, Chehalis and Skookumchuck -- from Snohomish through Thurston counties.

Most of Western Washington is under an urban and small stream warning, which relates to drainage and other problems.

Precipitation is expected to taper off by 9 a.m. today.

Trees were "dropping right and left" in Pierce County, leading to two deaths, said Sheriff's Department spokesman Ed Troyer.

The first fatality occurred around 5 p.m. when a driver swerved to avoid a falling tree and crashed into another tree, Troyer said. The driver, a man, was found dead in the 25100 block of Mountain Highway.

A woman died around 6 p.m. when a tree fell on a couple's small pickup truck on Harts Lake Valley Road near Wilcox Farms. Her husband was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center.

In the Madison Valley incident, the woman in her 40s was underwater for minutes when water flooded her windowless utility room in her basement, located in the 500 block of 30th Avenue East.

"Somehow, the door shut, and she couldn't open the door because of the water pressure," said Helen Fitzpatrick, spokeswoman for the Seattle Fire Department.

After firefighters reached the woman by cutting a hole in the floor above her, medics performed CPR and she was transported to Harborview, where she later died.

Fitzpatrick said the fire department had responded to hundreds of weather-related calls throughout the city.

The standing water in the area of Aurora Avenue and Mercer Street was "like a river" before Seattle Public Utilities crews unclogged a drain, said Gregg Hirakawa, spokesman for the city transportation department.

Later, Johan Onnink, a volunteer who donned a fluorescent orange vest, helped direct vehicles through a heavily flooded portion of Mercer. He shooed cars with low clearance away from the area and told larger vehicles: "Stay left and go slow -- you can make it."

By early evening, city utility crews had responded to about 200 calls about flooded homes, 10 of which were in Madison Valley, where a retention container overflowed, spokesman Andy Ryan said.

Crews also received another 200 calls regarding street flooding, but they were not responding to those calls Thursday night.

The utility also received reports of five landslides, a sinkhole in Southwest Seattle and a flooded parking garage at University Village.

Those experiencing flooding in their homes should call the utility at 206-386-1800.

Also on Thursday afternoon, waves from Puget Sound and high water pushed through a small county wastewater station at Myrtle Edwards Park, spreading treated sewage water over the plaza. Crews worked to fix the problem. "It's not clean in terms of being able to drink," said Annie Kolb-Nelson, King County Waste Water Treatment Division spokeswoman. "But there shouldn't be much that bacteria."

On Thursday night, a power outage affected about 150 customers in an industrial area south of Qwest Field, said Peter Clarke, Seattle City Light spokesman. It caused the lights and large video boards in the stadium to flicker just before the start of the game between the Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers.

Many fans were forced to listen to the entire first half in their cars while stuck in traffic.

Jason and Terra Kelly arrived at Qwest Field just in time -- for the second half. It took them three hours to get to the game from their home in Mukilteo -- half of that to Northgate.

"I've never seen anything like it; it was crazy," Jason Kelly said.

"It was raining so hard, you couldn't see. Most cars were driving five miles an hour," said Terra Kelly. "But I bought these tickets, and dang it, I'm going to the game!"

Rainer Avenue South in South Seattle also flooded Thursday evening, which residents attributed to "leaf-catchers" in the street's drains. Street crews distributed the black nets to prevent leaves from blocking drains. Residents rooted around in the murky water with sticks to clear the drains.

A few men dove beneath 3 feet of floodwater to try to unclog drains -- rising water had trapped workers in a shopping center in the 3200 block of Rainer Avenue.

The flooding was more severe in some locations -- the basement parking garage of the Byron Whetmore Apartments was completely under water.

Boualay Ponelateat, a tenant in the building, said her car was underwater in the garage. Ponelateat said she was surprised the leaf catchers weren't removed when weather reports showed the rain on its way.

"If they (the city) knew there was a storm coming, they should have removed them," she said.

P-I reporters Paul Shukovsky, Brad Wong and Debera Carlton Harrell contributed to this report.