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Originally published January 8, 2009 at 9:45 AM | Page modified January 9, 2009 at 1:12 AM

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I-5 still swamped; Lewis County cautious, hopeful

CENTRALIA — A 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5 near Chehalis remained closed today as a backed-up creek spilled over the highway, but the newest forecasts indicate rivers in the area won't get as high as once thought.

Seattle Times staff reporter

CENTRALIA — A 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5 near Chehalis remained closed today as a backed-up creek spilled over the highway.

As of early this morning, there were no alternate routes around the I-5 closure between mileposts 68 and 88, and state transportation officials are asking drivers to stay away.

Lewis County officials are hoping that rivers won't reach the flood levels that were forecast, and that damage to homes and buildings will be less than initially feared.

A big question mark had been the water level of the Skookumchuck River.

It was initially forecast to crest at Centralia at a record 88.8 feet about 4 p.m. today and cause widespread flooding. But as of 9 a.m., the forecast was reduced to a water level of 87 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

At 12:30 p.m. today, Lewis County officials said Chehalis River flood waters had topped the Airport Road dike, increasing flooding on Interstate 5 and complicating efforts to re-open the freeway.

It also is bad news for stores in the area, such as Wal-Mart, which were flooded in December 2007 and could be at risk again.

Water went over the top of the dike in December 2007.

The creek water now lapping the interstate could drain relatively quickly as the rain tapers off.

Weather Service predictions in Lewis County did overestimate one significant flood crest in Lewis County: The Cowlitz River at Randle, forecasts projected a record-shattering peak of more than 31 feet late Wednesday. But the river crested at less than 23 feet at that point and is now dropping, according to Allen Kam, with the Weather Service.

Throughout Lewis County, creek flooding and mudslides already have caused widespread road closures and cut off routes to some communities. Mudslides also knocked some homes off their foundations, according to county officials.

In light of forecasts Wednesday, businesses closed early, using the daylight to move their equipment and goods to higher ground. The city used at least 42,000 sandbags.

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Many businesses were just getting back on their feet after being damaged in the 2007 floods. Now they are worried about a repeat.

At Northwest Carpet One Floor & Home, employees had spent nearly four months scrubbing away mud and cleaning up after the 2007 flood. The showroom has new paint and floors covered in slate, wood and tile.

The workers had little warning before that flood, which filled the store with 22 inches of water and destroyed tens of thousands of dollars' worth of merchandise.

This time, they had more warning, so they could sandbag and raise merchandise off the floor.

"It's like déjà vu going through this again," said Cindy Klebe, an interior decorator with Northwest Carpet. "It would be very sad to see all this work go to waste."

By 7 p.m. Wednesday, it was easier to get around much of downtown on foot — if you had boots — than to drive. Many streets near downtown were closed off.

Mark Davies, whose basement had flooded previously, was hoping an elevated foundation would keep his home dry.

This time, his family stocked up on plenty of food and firewood, and had an inflatable rubber raft with an outboard motor.

He was optimistic Wednesday afternoon that he wouldn't need it to evacuate his own family.

"We're in pretty good shape. We have everything ready to go," he said. "But we figure other people will be needing help."

The eastern part of Lewis County, in the Cascades, had already been hit hard.

Mudslides closed roads and knocked two dozen homes off their foundations, according to the Lewis County Sheriff's Department. About 50 families were evacuated.

Most homes in Packwood lost power.

But providing help was difficult. Two deputy sheriffs who were assisting people got trapped in their car behind a mudslide.

Hal Bernton: hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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