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Tuesday, December 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Same intensity, more extensive damage than '93 storm

Seattle Times staff reporter

Columbus Day 1962 still holds the record for the Northwest's fiercest windstorm in at least 50 years, but who's No. 2: the Inauguration Day storm of 1993, or last week's blast?

University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass compared wind speeds from across the region and concludes that it's a virtual draw, despite the fact that last week's storm did more damage.

"This latest storm really didn't produce significantly stronger winds over Puget Sound than the 1993 Inauguration Day storm," he said. "They are very comparable."

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport did post a record wind speed of 69 mph early Friday. In 1993, winds reached 64 mph at the airport. But of the six other weather stations Mass checked, from Everett to Renton, four recorded higher wind speeds in 1993.

Mayhem is a different matter.

"Four days into the storm and we still have substations out," said Jerry Henry, a senior adviser who started work at Puget Sound Energy in the late 1960s. "As an old operations guy, that's totally unbelievable to me ... and it's because the damage is far more than anything I can remember."

In January 1993, about 700,000 people lost power across the region. This year, the total exceeded 1.1 million.

More than half of PSE's 160 high-voltage transmission lines, which deliver electricity from dams, wind farms and power plants, went down — a far higher percentage than in 1993. Seattle City Light lost 65 of its main feeder lines last week, compared with 53 on the day President Clinton was sworn in.

Experts blame several factors for the fact that winds on a par with those in 1993 wreaked so much more havoc this time around.

The recent storm was very widespread, said National Weather Service meteorologist Ted Buehner.

It also came on the heels of record-breaking rains, which makes trees more likely to topple. The Inauguration Day storm was preceded by a fairly dry month.

But to Henry, it's mainly a matter of numbers.

"This is by far in my mind a worse storm ... just because we've got a lot more customers and they're living in more and more remote areas," he said.

The number of households served by PSE has climbed nearly 30 percent since 1993.

Subdivisions have spread across the eastern plateau and deep into other areas that were recently second-growth forests. Big swaths of land have been cleared for development, leaving fringes of trees that are more vulnerable to wind than intact stands.

"We're really creating phenomenal windstorm hazards by the way we've been developing these areas," Mass said.

The trees that weathered the 1993 storm are also much bigger now, Henry pointed out.

Those trees, mostly Douglas firs, are the reason the Northwest is uniquely vulnerable to windstorms, Mass said. The species grows very tall but has shallow roots.

"The same winds on the East Coast would do a lot less damage."

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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