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Saturday, December 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Half the power restored, 533,000 customers still powerless

Seattle Times staff reporter

More than 533,000 homes and businesses remained without power today after the worst storm in more than a decade ripped through Western Washington, darkening entire towns, toppling trees into houses and killing at least four people.

While power could be restored over the weekend in most Seattle neighborhoods, some areas of King and Snohomish counties could be without electricity for several days.

By this morning, 460,000 Puget Sound Energy, 60,000 Seattle City Light and 13,000 Snohomish County Public Utility District customers were still without power. City Light crews hoped to restore at least 20,000 homes by midnight tonight.

But recovery efforts by utilities were slowed because the high winds damaged high-voltage transmission lines across the Cascade Mountains as well as smaller neighborhood power lines.

The storm peaked early Friday morning when the "poisonous tail" of a low-pressure system blew into the region from the southwest, University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass said.

The windstorm was the worst to hit the state since the Inauguration Day storm on Jan. 20, 1993, which killed six people, destroyed at least 79 homes and caused about $130 million in damage.

Like the 1993 storm, tales of Friday's storm will be retold for years by the thousands of Puget Sound-area residents who suffered through it. A tree cut a Mercer Island house in half. A sinkhole opened in West Seattle. Hardware and grocery stores saw a run on supplies from bread to generators and batteries.

The Seattle area should get somewhat of a reprieve from the high winds this weekend, forecasters say. Rain or showers are expected to diminish this weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

"It's going to be doggone pleasant weather, after what we've been through," said Ted Buehner, Weather Service meteorologist in Seattle.

Some insurance providers said that judging from the volume of calls rolling in, the damage from this storm could eclipse the 1993 mark.

"So far, it feels like this is going to be bigger than the Inauguration Day storm," Pemco spokesman Jon Osterberg said.

Winds gusted to 69 mph about 1 a.m. Friday at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, breaking the mark of 65 mph set in 1993.

In terms of sheer wind power, the granddaddy remains 1962's infamous Columbus Day Storm, an extra-tropical cyclone that whipped the Seattle area with winds of up to 90 mph.

Hard-hit in Thursday and Friday's storm was Bellevue, where about 80 percent of the city, including downtown, was still without power by midday Friday.

"It's pretty amazing. We're just kind of paralyzed," said city spokesman Tim Waters, who predicted that power in some areas of the city could be out for several days.

At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, a power outage shut down most air traffic Friday afternoon.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported the outage at its station that monitors all air traffic within 25 miles of Seattle, according to Sea-Tac spokeswoman Rachel Garson. Some arrivals were rerouted and departures were held.

Garson said Friday night that there were still delays, but that things were slowly getting back to normal at the airport. She said all flights were expected to be on schedule by the end of the night.

Amtrak service between Seattle and Portland was mostly restored early today.

Metro Transit was back to normal service today, although some of the trolley routes with overhead electric wires were using diesel buses. Metro spokeswoman Linda Thielke said if trees are blocking roads, buses are detouring around the closures. She said there may be some delays, "but we're as normal as anyone can be in this situation."

Gov. Christine Gregoire late Friday afternoon declared a state of emergency in Western Washington.

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

The state's Emergency Management Division will be working this weekend on a survey of damage to homes, roads and public facilities for a possible application for federal disaster aid, spokesman Rob Harper said.

A federal declaration could help homeowners with flood damage not covered by homeowners insurance, and pay repair costs at facilities like King County's West Point wastewater-treatment plant.

While it's too early to tell if the storm damage was severe enough to qualify, Harper said the winds added to damage caused by recent snowstorms and flooding. "This has been one of the nastiest stretches of weather I've experienced, and I go back to the '50s in this state," Harper said. "This won't be forgotten quickly."

Deaths attributed to the storm included a Seattle woman who drowned when the basement of her Madison Valley home was flooded.

In Pierce County, two people died in separate accidents. One man died when his car hit a fallen tree; a woman died when her truck was crushed by a falling tree.

And a Grays Harbor County man died when the top of a tree snapped off in the wind and crashed into his trailer home, where he was sleeping.

Others narrowly escaped death or serious injury.

Dave Tempest and his wife, Kathy, were on opposite ends of their Mercer Island home Thursday night when a 130-foot fir tree crashed through their roof, splitting their house in two. One branch came to rest just a few feet from Kathy, who was watching TV on the couch.

The couple, both 56, spent the night with friends and then had a contractor weatherproof the roof and cut some of the branches Friday morning.

They weren't sure whether they could salvage the five-bedroom house in the 9000 block of Southeast 44th Street, where they've lived for more than 20 years. But they were happy that no one was hurt and that their two college-age children weren't home at the time.

"Once we realized we were both safe, that was the most important thing," said Dave Tempest, a physician at Swedish Medical Center. "The rest is just bricks and mortar."

The storm savaged 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 by high winds, said Dorothy Bracken, a spokeswoman for Puget Sound Energy.

PSE sent a helicopter to pinpoint where trees had cut the transmission lines. The utility needed to assess those failures before targeting "feeder" lines that flow out from substations to individual neighborhoods.

Seattle City Light said a typical storm downs just a few feeder lines. Thursday night's storm cut 65, and by Friday afternoon, 49 were still not working, spokesman Peter Clarke said.

The storm spurred a run on groceries and supplies such as heaters, generators, batteries and chain saws.

At a North Seattle Lowe's, six people were waiting in line when the store opened at 6 a.m., store manager Jim Corbett said. The store sold out of its stock of 25 generators by 7 a.m. "We're getting slammed," Corbett said.

Some area retailers benefited from the storm as residents sought out warm, lighted places. At Northgate Mall in Seattle, shopping traffic was 50 percent heavier than normal.

A Bartell Drugs in Renton had a handwritten sign proclaiming "We Are Open!" But barely. An employee pried open the electric sliding doors each time a customer needed entry. Workers escorted shoppers down aisles, using flashlights to illuminate items. They wrote all transactions down by hand.

In addition to the wind, the massive rainfall flooded streets and overwhelmed sewer systems.

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

Contractors said they were overwhelmed with calls by homeowners seeking repairs.

"I haven't seen anything like this since the Inauguration Day storm in '93. Our phone has been ringing off the hook," said roofing contractor Ron Haider of Haider Construction in Mountlake Terrace. "We've had tree limbs falling on roofs, shingles blown off, roofs damaged and leaking and one skylight that was pulled apart by the wind."

Haider said some of his crews had difficulty getting to the homes that need repair because of streets blocked by downed trees, particularly on Mercer Island. "Right now anybody in the roofing business is getting more calls than they can get to right away."

The latest storm clobbered a region already drenched with record rainfall in November, capped off by a snowstorm.

The succession of bad weather occurred to Doug Funkhouser of Camano Island as he spent 4-½ hours driving home Thursday night due to the intense rain, standing water on Interstate 5 and traffic from the Seahawks game.

Once home, Funkhouser lost power about 8 p.m. Dozens of trees are down and blocking roads on the island. Many of the trees had snapped off about halfway up their trunks.

It was the third time in three weeks that a storm has cut power to Camano Island. Last time, Funkhouser was without power for three days while other residents didn't get their lights back for almost a week.

"It's not even winter yet," Funkhouser said.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times staff reporters Peyton Whitely, Ashley Bach, Christopher Schwarzen, Diane Brooks, Lynn Thompson, Warren King, Jack Broom, Pam Sitt, Karen Gaudette, Steve Miletich, Christine Willmsen, Jennifer Sullivan and Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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