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Snowmageddon after all: Seattle says go home; state of emergency; 200,000+ without power

Gov. Chris Gregoire has declared a state of emergency for an ice storm that landed on top of heavy snow in western Washington, causing treacherous travel, power outages and threats that buildings could collapse. So far, the storm has left more than 200,000 people without power.

Seattle city officials are asking residents to get home before dark, if possible, because they fear even worse icing conditions by night fall.

Ice closed Sea-Tac Airport in the early morning before one runway was reopened. The State Patrol said it had responded to about 2,300 accidents in a 24-hour period ending at 9 a.m. Thursday, roughly quadruple the average number.

Cliff Mass, KPLU’s weather expert, said the freezing rain left quarter-inch crust on the snow in north Seattle "...and now it is turning into snow as the precipitation intensity increases."

Mass wrote on his blog: “Well folks, this is not my profession's finest hour. We had forecast the continuation of the light freezing drizzle of yesterday (an irritant, but not a major threat) and then a warm-up today with rain coming in late. Our models did not indicate that the precipitation would move so far north, so fast. … Clearly we have several hours more of this moderate snow/sleet/freezing rain event.”

Earlier today, Mass wrote this is one of the rare times we’ve had a freezing rain coupled with a sleet storm. One of the worst occurred December 1996, the famous storm that, like today, closed Sea-Tac Airport and paralyzed the region.

“This is a highly unusual situation here in western Washington: Outside of the famous ice storms of the western Columbia Gorge (also known as the silver thaw), western Washington does not get freezing rain very often," Mass said.

Power outages

As many as 200,000 customers of Puget Sound Energy alone were without electrical service early this afternoon.

"We can’t make full estimate of how long the restoration effort will take until the ice and snow storm – and the damage it’s causing... -- ends and our crews can make a comprehensive assessment of the damage. But right now, we think it will be 3 to 4 days…maybe longer," Puget Sound Energy said via twitter.

The state of emergency declaration authorizes the use of the National Guard and coordination of state agencies through the Emergency Operations Center at Camp Murray.

National Weather Service forecast:

  • Tonight: Snow likely before 10 p.m., then rain likely. Snow level 600 feet rising to 2300 feet. Cloudy, with a temperature rising to around 35 by 4 a.m. North wind around 5 mph becoming calm. Chance of precipitation is 70 percent. Little or no snow accumulation expected.
  • Friday: Rain. High near 46. South wind around 10 mph. Chance of precipitation is 90 percent.

Trucker rules lifted

Gregoire also issued a proclamation that ensures the delivery of valuable dairy products across Washington state.

“This is purely a precautionary measure,” Gregoire said in a release. “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.”

A brief waiver of the restrictions on dairy truck drivers’ work hours is needed now, she added, to avoid shipment delays that could mean the loss of nearly $1 million a day for the state’s dairy industry.”

First fatality of storm

A falling tree has killed a person in the ice storm that followed heavy snow in western Washington.

King County sheriff's Sgt. Cindi West says the person was backing an all-terrain vehicle out of a shed near Issaquah Thursday morning when it was hit by the tree. The ATV rider died at the scene.

Here’s the earlier lowdown from Cliff Mass’ weather blog:

"Over the northern part of the domain, the southwesterly air is high enough so that it is below freezing, so there is snow (Everett is snowing). But farther south, we have above-freezing air aloft and rain. Rain that is falling into below-freezing air. Some of this rain is freezing on the way down into ice pellets or sleet (what woke me up), but a lot of it is staying liquid and hitting the ground as freezing rain ... which freezes on contact with the cold surface. The current freezing rain is a mixture of the two icing mechanisms (freezing drizzle from shallow clouds and freezing rain from aloft)."

(Video: Not recommended travel)

Updated WSDOT report:

Commutes will remain difficult through the night and into Friday as this winter storm continues to pack a punch.

Many state highways continue to have areas of snow, slush and ice, and there are many areas with trees down across the road. Western Washington temperatures are not expected to start rising above freezing until Friday morning, Jan. 20.

Washington State Department of Transportation crews have been in storm-fighting mode since Saturday, working around the clock to treat and clear roads across the state.

Storm Impacts:

  • Travelers using I-90 westbound, east of Snoqualmie Pass, tonight will encounter continued delays because of a multi-vehicle collision. The westbound lanes remain closed west of Ellensburg.
  • Avalanche control is expected overnight on US 2 Stevens Pass.
  • WSDOT traffic cameras in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties are out, due to power outages in the Tacoma area.

For a complete list of road closures in Puget Sound, visit WSDOT’s What’s Happening Now Web page.

The Associated Press story from this morning:

Freezing rain has followed heavy snow in Western Washington, causing icy roads and power outages.

The National Weather Service has issued an ice storm warning until noon Thursday for the Seattle area and southwest Washington.

Ice closed Sea-Tac Airport. Spokeswoman Charla Skaggs told KOMO Radio that airlines would likely cancel flights because taxiways remain a problem even as runways are deiced.

The Transportation Department has closed Highway 18 near Issaquah because of falling trees.

The ice storm warning covers Seattle, Tacoma, Bremerton, the east Puget Sound lowlands, Olympia, the lower Chehalis Valley and central coast, including Hoquiam.

Forecasters expect up to four-tenths of an inch of ice before temperatures rise above freezing by afternoon.

Worker injured in icy crash

A Washington Transportation Department worker has been injured in an icy crash on Interstate 405 near Interstate 5 north of Seattle.

DOT spokeswoman Jamie Holter says he's been taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Holter says the worker had responded about 6:45 a.m. Thursday to a collision in which one car slid into a barrier and was hit by another car. She had no details of how the worker was injured.

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