Northwest storms ease drought worries; mudslide risks remain

AP News
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Posted: Dec 11, 2015 2:22 PM
Northwest storms ease drought worries; mudslide risks remain

SEATTLE (AP) — Fierce storms in the Pacific Northwest sent rivers bursting from their banks, spilled boulders and trees into a major highway and spawned a rare tornado that snapped power poles and battered homes. They've also had one positive effect — easing drought concerns after an unusually dry summer.

The big storms that killed at least two people in Oregon this week shifted into California, where snow coated the slopes of the Sierra Nevada. But forecasters said mudslide danger on saturated hills in the Northwest would remain high through the weekend.

A rain-soaked hillside collapsed Wednesday north of Portland, Oregon, on the main highway connecting Washington and Oregon, stranding thousands of motorists on Interstate 5. Road closures in both states frustrated drivers who were trying to navigate alternate routes that took them hours out of their way.

"It was crazy, and I was scared," said Diane Smith of Lacey, Washington, who was stuck for three hours behind the I-5 landslide and then drove a steep, windy road to get around it.

Two lanes of the interstate were back open by Thursday night, and officials said they hoped to have all three reopened by late Sunday.

More rain is on the way through the weekend.

The moisture is helping to fill reservoirs earlier and recharging the groundwater, said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service based in Mount Vernon.

But "a lot of this rain is going down hard so it's flowing straight through the snowpack, and it's not adding to it," he added.

Much of Washington's water supply depends on mountain snowpack that builds over winter, and melts in spring and summer.

The latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor on Thursday showed the area west of the Cascade Mountains in Washington is no longer in drought.

Cities like Seattle, Everett and Tacoma implemented water shortage plans when unseasonably dry summer conditions left the region parched.

The storms also spawned a tornado that touched down Thursday in the southwest Washington city of Battle Ground, National Weather Service officials in Portland said.

Officials say the tornado damaged 36 homes and two commercial buildings as well as downing trees and power poles, and blowing away fences in a path 2 miles long.

The storms prompted Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to declare a state of emergency Thursday for 13 counties hit hardest with damage. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide emergency Wednesday.

Steady rain of the usual winter variety is expected in Oregon and Washington over the next few days.

The major storms have moved into Northern California, where the biggest storm to hit the slopes of the Sierra Nevada this season brought celebration from ski resorts and the businesses that surround them.

"It's full-on winter out here," said Jerry Bindel, general manager of Aston Lakeland Village vacation condominiums in South Lake Tahoe. "This is great news all the way around."

Friday should be a quieter weather day, said National Weather Service Meteorologist Mike Smith in Sacramento. He expects rain showers in the Sacramento area, but it should stay dry for the most part before another storm moves in Saturday and Sunday.

California needs all the snow and rain it can get, given four years of drought that have dried up reservoirs and left trees parched. Even a wet winter is not expected to end the drought, but the snow is good for business, say Tahoe-area ski resorts, property managers and mom-and-pop retailers.

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Contributed to this report were Associated Press journalists Gosia Wozniacka and Steven Dubois in Portland, Oregon; Ted Warren, Phuong Le and Manuel Valdes in Seattle; Scott Smith in Fresno, California; and Janie Har in San Francisco.