Snow wasn't bad enough? Now Oregon is battling floods
The Pacific Northwest continued to struggle Thursday under a parade of storms that have marched in like hostile armies from the Pacific. As Seattle coped with freezing rain and ice -- 300,000 homes were without power at midday -- officials in parts of Oregon were evacuating homes.
The state was battling near-record floods as the snow that hit earlier in the week turned into torrential rain. The onslaught melted the snow, sending cascades of water down rivers and creeks.
With prospects of continued flooding, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber late Thursday declared a state of emergency due to severe winter weather in Marion, Coos, Benton and Lincoln counties.
"In a couple of cases, we have had rivers and creeks reach levels of the last big round of floods we had in 1996. So this is serious," Gene Evans, spokesman for Oregon's emergency operations center, told the Los Angeles Times.
Hardest hit were small towns near the state capital of Salem, in the Willamette Valley, which saw up to 3 inches of rain over the last 24 hours, and areas along the coast, where residents got up to 6 inches of rain.
In the town of Albany on Wednesday night, a vehicle with four people inside was swept out of a grocery store parking lot into a nearby creek that had suddenly overflowed. The car appears to have been sucked rapidly into a culvert under the road, where it became trapped, Wanda Omdahl, spokeswoman for the Albany Fire Department, said in an interview.
Rescuers were able to pull out 24-year-old Christopher Wilgus and his 5-year-old son, Maliki, who were transported to the hospital, and they continued to search the watery darkness for the other two people in the car.
"After about two hours, the chance of recovering anyone is not there. No one can survive under water that long. So we switched from a rescue to a recovery mode," Omdahl said.
Shortly after midnight, the body of 20-month-old Aiden McLaughlin was pulled from the water several hundred yards downstream; the body of his mother, Catherine McLaughlin, 18, was found at midday Thursday.
The 5-year-old remained in critical condition Thursday.
Albany Fire Department staffers were also working in the nearby town of Scio, where flooding on Thomas Creek prompted the evacuation of three-fourths of the town's 870 residents and stranded several people in their homes. Rescuers in boats were taking them to nearby evacuation centers.
About 80 homes were evacuated in Turner, where Portland's KGW television had video images of the local fire department -- along with parts of the rest of the town -- surrounded by water.
The capital city was experiencing problems as well, as street flooding washed through several basement parking garages and closed roads. "It's pretty much runoff at this point," Evans said.
On the other side of Oregon's Coast Range, rescuers were helping evacuate residents in the 900-resident town of Mapleton, where the Siuslaw River was raging.
The rain had slowed down by Thursday afternoon -- but it was only a temporary respite, National Weather Service meteorologist Tiffani Brown warned.
"We've got a little bit of a break this evening and tonight between systems. But another system is coming in from the west during Friday," she said. "So we will kind of have a repeat of heavy rainfall for a good period of time. And the outlook just seems to be very similar, where we have a system coming from the west that will bring a good amount of rain every 24 to 36 hours, at least through midweek next week."
The flood warning issued by the National Weather Service for Oregon also extended into southwest Washington.
Near Seattle, the precipitation was still coming down as snow and freezing rain, briefly suspending flights at Seattle Tacoma International Airport on Thursday morning and causing dozens of canceled flights.
At least one fatality was blamed on the storm. A 60-year-old man died near Issaquah, Wash., when a tree fell on him as he was backing his all-terrain vehicle out of a lean-to, King County Sheriff's Department spokesman Cindi West said.
"He was going to go for a ride, and his wife was going to go with him. He went to back it out, and when he didn't get back, she went out and found that a tree had fallen on him," she said in an interview.
Sheriff's deputies who investigated the incident were briefly held up from returning when a fallen tree blocked the road -- one of dozens of similar incidents across western Washington that left at least 200,000 homes without power.
Puget Sound Energy, the major utility in the region, warned that some homes might not be brought back on the grid until the weekend.
In what she said was "purely a precautionary measure," Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire issued an emergency storm proclamation. It was designed, initially, to relieve restrictions on work hours for dairy truck drivers, helping ensure that milk product deliveries could reach their destinations.
The proclamation will also allow the National Guard and other state agencies to step in if needed.
"So far, we haven't received any requests for state assistance -- but we know weather conditions are rapidly changing. I want to make sure we have every resource available to ensure our communities are safe," the governor said.
The Washington forecast was for gradually warming temperatures, with the prospect of rainfall melting the accumulated ice and snow within the next few days.
-- Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo: A submerged school bus lies on its side as Diane Garibaldi looks on in Salem, Ore. Credit: Rick Bowmer/Associated Press