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Originally published December 15, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 15, 2006 at 8:02 PM

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Storm causes state of emergency

As storm winds died down this morning, power, roads and sewage crews began to grapple with the damage and chaos from a storm that has killed at least four people.

Seattle Times staff reporters

King County Executive Ron Sims issued an emergency proclamation this morning after supercharged winds of up to 70 miles an hour overnight knocked out power to about one million people in greater Seattle.

Utilities across the region worked feverishly to restore lights and heat, but warned that hundreds of thousands of homes in Seattle and its suburbs may remain dark into Saturday. Puget Sound Energy warned of delays of up to five days.

As of 8 p.m. Friday about 86,000 Seattle City Light customers remained without power. At the highest point Friday, nearly 175,000 customers were without electricity.

Gov. Christine Gregoire late this afternoon declared a state of emergency in Western Washington. The proclamation covers Clallam, Clark, Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Island, Jefferson, Lewis, King, Mason, Pacific, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, Thurston, Wahkiakum and Whatcom counties.

The declaration authorizes the use of state resources, including the Washington National Guard, to help local communities recover from the storm.

"We can not control the weather, but we can make sure that we offer as much support as possible while families and communities work to recover from these storms," Gregoire said.

As storm winds died down this morning, government agencies and individuals began to grapple with the damage and chaos from a storm that has killed at least four people..

In Seattle, hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage mixed with rainwater was flushed into Puget Sound after two critical parts of King County's wastewater system were damaged and overwhelmed by flood runoff.

Major roads, including the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and Hood Canal Bridge reopened after periodic closures.

The storm caused an unusual amount of damage the region's power infrastructure. Dozens of transmission lines — the large power lines that transfer power from dams and other sources to neighborhood substations — were knocked down in the storm, said Dorothy Bracken, a spokeswoman for Puget Sound Energy.

PSE had dispatched a helicopter to pinpoint where trees had cut the transmission lines. PSE said it needed to assess those failures before targeting "feeder" lines that flow out from substations to neighborhoods.

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Seattle City Light said a typical storm downs two or three feeder lines. Last night's storm cut 65; 49 were still not working this afternoon, said spokesman Peter Clarke.

Clarke said City Light expected as many as 50,000 home might still be without power at midnight on Saturday.

"There will be people without power tonight and when we get down to small neighborhoods there may be some of those that are out for more than 24 hours, " Clarke said.

PSE reported 700,000 customers – two thirds of its customer base — without power, most of them in King County, said Bracken. In addition to most Eastside cities, Bracken said "all of Whidbey Island is without power."

"This is a major storm with significant outages," she said. People living in the Cascade foothills and other rural areas should expect to be without power for "four or five days or more," Bracken said.

Meanwhile, Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon has declared a state of emergency to "be able to respond more quickly and efficiently to those in need of County services and to seek federal reimbursement of these damages in the event that we receive another presidential declaration."

The county's Department of Emergency Management opened its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) Thursday night to prepare to respond to damage caused by the storm. Winds peaked last night in the County at 76 mph. The south and south east portions of the County appear to have been hit the hardest by storm.

As of this afternoon, there were 34 roads closed throughout Snohomish County. County roads crews will be working with the PUD through the weekend to clear trees and tangled power lines from county roadways. Up to the minute road closure information is available on the county's website, www.snoco.org.

The EOC has coordinated emergency efforts throughout the county. The PUD reported as of Friday afternoon 67,000 residents remain without electricity. PUD expects to have all power restored in the next 2-3 days. Residents are reminded to stay clear of any downed power lines as they can be extremely dangerous.

Seattle City Light crews worked to repair small power outrages that cropped up early Thursday evening. But by midnight, as winds gusted to 50 mph, the workers were pulled from the job. "We didn't have crews out because it was dangerous," Clarke said. "They can't work up high and in their buckets when wind is blowing and trees were down. As soon as dawn hit we sent our crews out."

PSE crews didn't begin repair work until 4 a.m., also because of fierce winds, Bracken said.

Several Seattle-area hospitals, including Providence, Children's and Swedish Medical Center were relying on generators for a time after losing power.

In outlying areas, people could be without power for five days or more. All of Sultan was blacked out most of the night. South and east Snohomish County appear to have been hit the worst, and the PUD says it could be days before power is completely restored in the county.

Insurance companies said it was too early to assess damage from the storm, but Pemco reported a huge volume of calls.

"So far, it feels like this is going to be bigger than the Inauguration Day storm," Pemco spokesman Jon Osterberg said, referring to a January 1993 storm that's become the standard for wind damage in Western Washington. "It's mainly trees on homes, trees coming down on fences, just general wind damage."

Most Comcast cable customers lost service. A Sprint Nextel spokeswoman said that the network in the Seattle and Portland area is experiencing some disruptions due to power outages. Qwest reported few problems with phone service.

Power outages closed many regional school districts and some major employers, including Microsoft, which asked employees to work at home.

Retail business tried to soldier though outages. Grocery and hardware store shelves were being picked clean of food, batteries, generators, camping stoves and Duraflame fire logs. Though much of downtown Bellevue remained dark, some Bellevue Square retailers intend to operate in dim, natural light, said General Manager Robert Dallain.

Employees used battery-operated adding machines and paperwork for credit card transactions.

Downtown Seattle was not affected by the outages and no essential services — hospitals and police and fire facilities — are without power, said City Light spokesman Clarke.

The north end of Seattle and the northern suburbs of Lake Forest Park, Shoreline and Richmond Beach have been particularly hard-hit, Clarke said. To the south, Tukwila, Burien and White Center have also had a number of outages.

Within the city, there are significant outages in the International District, Yesler Terrace, Beacon Hill, west Wedgwood and Lake City. Parts of Capitol Hill, Ballard and a small section of Fremont are lost power, Clarke said.

Mercer Island residents have just one way out of the city, Island Crest Way, and city officials were advising people to stay home. The city said this may be the worst storm in memory for the city. Officials had already logged 200 incidents, and during the 1993 Inauguration Day storm, they logged just 50.

Some of the strongest winds in the region – up to 100 mph – were reported on the Long Beach Peninsula. But officials reported no major damage or serious injuries.

"I've lived here all my life, and that was pretty amazing last night," Long Beach Police chief Flint Wright said.

Vancouver Island reported 119 mile-per-hour winds, and Whistler ski resort got 20 inches of snow in just 12 hours. Wenatchee's Mission Ridge ski resort was closed with 135 mph gusts. In Spokane, 45,000 customers of Avista Utilities were without power, but no injuries and little structural damage was reported.

In Oregon, the storm left more than 375,000 customers without power, and many were expected to remain in the cold for days, The Oregonian newspaper reported.

And along coastal waters of mid-Oregon, the Coast Guard, a C-130 search plane and local fire and rescue teams searched Friday for the missing three-man crew of a wrecked catamaran. The crew had been transporting the catamaran from South Africa to Seattle

Amtrak Cascades service was cancelled today due to trees and mudslides blocking the tracks.

In Magnolia, the West Point waste-water treatment facility, which treats sewage from central, north and suburban Seattle, shut down at 7:15 p.m. because of power outages. Millions of gallons of untreated sewage and storm water were diverted out a pipe into the Puget Sound, said Don Theiler, director of the county's wastewater treatment division. The plant was restarted at 8:20 a.m. today.

In West Seattle, a waste water pumping station near the Fauntleroy ferry dock failed, pumping raw sewage into Puget Sound. Officials expect that plant to restart this evening.

Utility companies ask customers not to call to report outages because they say they are already aware. However, if there is a downed power line, they ask that you report it.

"This is reminiscent of the Inaugural Day storm of 1993 when we had 700,000 customers without power," said Bracken of PSE. "It took several days before we could get all the power restored and we expect it to take several days this time."

Seattle Times staff reporters Sara Jean Green, Steve Miletich, Christine Willmsen, Keith Ervin, Ralph Thomas, Amy Martinez and Ashley Bach.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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