Hundreds of thousands without power — and it could be a while
More than a quarter-million homes and businesses were without power after freezing rain and snow knocked trees into electrical lines throughout Puget Sound.
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Hundreds of thousands of Puget Sound residents were expected to begin a second day in the cold and dark Friday, victims of an icy storm that lingered over Western Washington, killing an Issaquah man and leaving a spaghetti of downed power lines that repair crews will be restringing into next week.
More than a quarter-million homes and businesses in Pierce, Thurston, King and Snohomish counties were without electricity late Thursday even as snow and freezing rain continued to fall from a storm that had been predicted to ease earlier in the day.
For many, the usual concerns about a slippery commute quickly faded to far more fundamental worries — staying warm key among them — as falling trees and broken branches pulled down power lines from Camano Island to Olympia.
Forecasters were predicting light snow and freezing rain into Friday morning before giving way to warmer temperatures and rain later in the day.
Gov. Chris Gregoire declared a state of emergency, giving her the authority to activate the National Guard and suspend rules that were threatening the delivery of vital produce and other goods.
As the day and the storm wore on, transportation officials closed sections of several roads, including Highway 18, due to icy conditions and the danger of falling trees. Portions of Highway 18 in eastern and South King County weren't expected to reopen until Friday afternoon.
"I've never seen anything quite like this in my career," said Roger Thompson, spokesman for Puget Sound Energy (PSE), which reported 230,000 customers without power Thursday night. "It's the storm that just keeps giving."
Among the hardest-hit areas were Issaquah and the Sammamish Plateau; Kent, Auburn, Renton and Federal Way; and south into Pierce and Thurston counties.
Thompson said past Puget Sound storm outages mostly involved power lines downed by wind. Crews are usually able to get into an area, clean things up and restore power in a reasonably short time — a day or so, maybe.
Not so with this storm. The threat of falling trees and treacherous ice made repairs slow and hazardous.
Early Thursday, Thompson said, PSE was staying abreast of the outages, relying on its workers and 20 additional crews it had brought in from Oregon, Eastern Washington and British Columbia in anticipation of the storm, which dumped snow across the region on Wednesday.
The effort proved inadequate as temperatures continued to hover below freezing and the snow and rain — which had been predicted to let up — continued unabated, he said.
"It's like the storm was moving in slow motion," Thompson said. "And things began to pile up."
By late Thursday, PSE reported dispatching 82 four-person power-line crews, another 27 two-person tree-crews and 76 others to 560 separate "outage locations." Thompson said an additional 140 crews and trucks from as far away as Montana and Utah were on their way to help, with the first expected to arrive Friday.
Even so, PSE said it could not predict when power would be restored and warned on its Facebook page and through Twitter and other social media that some residents could be in the dark through the weekend and even beyond.
PSE's phone lines were so overloaded that it was asking residents to report outages via email and Facebook — something that can be difficult without electricity.
Other area utilities reported similar problems. The Snohomish County Public Utility District had more than 11,500 customers without power Thursday night while Seattle City Light counted about 2,200 customers out of service.
"It's brutal out there," said Snohomish PUD spokesman Mike Thorne.
Entire communities were left in the dark while residents tried to make the best of the uncertainty and creeping cold.
Denese Bohanna, 68, and Kay Jackson, 65, sat in their cold Kent apartment with their coats on all day. By Thursday night, they had retired to their running car and its heater. "It's too cold to be in the house," said Jackson.
The city streets were littered with fallen branches and limbs heavy with snow and ice. Ornamental trees lining Meeker Street in downtown Kent and Auburn Way South were particularly hard hit — at one point in the afternoon, it was possible to stand and watch huge branches break and rain onto the street, some landing on cars.
Many residents decided to flee the dark and cold and check into a hotel, only to find them already full.
A woman at a Days Inn in Kent said all 80 rooms were taken in four hours Thursday. Even $250 suites at Renton's Larkspur Landing were taken by 2 p.m. James DeCastro, Larkspur Landing's operations manager, said he didn't know of any hotels in the area with rooms left.
"We've been getting calls almost every three minutes," he said. "As soon as the power went out, people started calling."
A man was killed in the woods below Squak Mountain about four miles south of Issaquah, when a tree fell on him as he was backing his all-terrain vehicle out of a shed Thursday morning.
Throughout the day, trees in the nearby woods continued to creak, groan and snap, falling across roads and driveways with a sound like gunfire.
"We've got all this popping going on; it sounds like deer season around here," said Jim Schuyleman, who lived just up the road from the victim. "It's pretty scary. We're surrounded by a bunch of big firs."
Schuyleman was without power, and the likely cause could be found across the street from another neighbor, Kathy Francis — a thick tree lay across a power line that hung no more than three feet off the ground. Another downed line snaked through a watery ditch below.
Francis had been through this a few years before, when 10 giant trees crashed down on her driveway, several coming perilously close to her home.
"We got really lucky then," she said.
This year, she'd talked all summer about taking some of the remaining ones out, but decided against it.
"Now I wish we had," she said, as more trees thundered down in the distance. "It's really creepy around here."
Schuyleman, like many of his neighbors, has a generator, but had no fuel and his car was parked a quarter-mile away. Even so, without electricity, local gas stations were unable to fuel him up.
On the more suburban Sammamish Plateau, residents crammed into darkened grocery stores trying to stock up for what most expected would be days if not a week without power.
Outside the Pine Lake QFC, a giant stack of cordwood sold out in a few hours. Inside the store, a generator powered cash registers and lights over some aisles, while others remained in the shadows.
"Isn't this awesome?" asked a good-natured Yuri Kreutzer, who used a flashlight app on his iPhone to pick out the proper-sized Huggies for his 5-month-old child. Then, like any stressed-out new parent, he popped over to the pitch-black wine aisle to choose a bottle of red.
Some powerless Sammamish residents checked into Seattle hotels; others spent the afternoon cross-country skiing along sidewalks.
But 17-year-old Kelly Christianson, a high-school senior, sat at her darkened kitchen counter studying for a biology final by light from candles and an oil lamp.
"Right now it's more annoying than amusing," Christianson said, sighing. "My mom and I keep reaching for the computer mouse for something to do. Then we remember: that's not going to work."
Seattle Times reporters Mike Carter, Craig Welch, Nancy Bartley, Lark Turner, Susan Kelleher, Jack Broom and Jennifer Sullivan contributed to his story.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org