High winds blew down trees across the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene region early Wednesday, knocking out power to tens of thousands of people as meteorologists reported the second-highest gusts ever recorded at Spokane International Airport.
For households without power, this could be a “multi-day event,” Avista Operations Director David Howell said Wednesday.
A woman in her 40s died after a tree fell on her car at 27th Avenue and Post Street, near Comstock Park, Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said.
Another woman trapped by a fallen tree in her home on 63rd Avenue was rescued by city of Spokane and Spokane County Fire District 8 firefighters, Schaeffer posted on Twitter shortly after 6 a.m.
“We are experiencing areas of flooding, downed trees, and other impacts from the storm. Please be very careful on your commute,” Schaeffer wrote.
The steady roar of winds Wednesday morning was punctuated by loud snaps and crashes on Spokane’s South Hill, which was left littered with fallen trees and downed power lines that forced some residents to evacuate and businesses to shutter.
A massive pine tree was uprooted and fell across 28th Avenue near Division Street shortly before 7 a.m. With an odor of natural gas lingering in the air, firefighters evacuated the entire block for about an hour, with neighbors sheltering the temporarily displaced residents. By about 8:30 a.m., most of the block was allowed back inside their homes.
Howell said with more than 3,000 outages affecting around 70,000 households in the Spokane area by 1 p.m., Avista crews have their hands full. Crews are focusing on restoring power to critical customers including hospitals and emergency services.
In Coeur d’Alene, Avista crews won’t be able to assess damage until winds stop, meaning restoration might take longer for the 21,000 households out of power there Wednesday afternoon, Howell said.
“No one got hurt,” said nearby resident Bryce Thomas. “It just kind of fell in the road, and I guess that’s about as good as it could be.”
Many of the trees that line Manito Boulevard just south of 29th Avenue were torn from the ground.
One in front of Regeena Fine’s house was uprooted and splayed across the lawn but spared her house — and the little free library in front of it. She had hoped to send her kids to school, where it would be safer, but learned that school was canceled.
Despite the tree that had fallen in their lawn, neighbors Pat and Sue Dalton agreed it was less severe than the 2015 windstorm, but still worse than expected.
“We really lucked out,” Pat Dalton said.
Schaeffer agreed the storm isn’t quite as bad as the one in 2015; however, he said Wednesday’s storm did cause a “significant amount of damage.”
“The overall system that we have to mitigate emergencies exceeded its maximum at one point and many of those calls that were non-priority in nature were placed in the queue to be dealt with when we could add resources to the system,” Schaeffer said.
Fire crews are dealing with everything from structurally damaged homes to people stuck in elevators, Schaeffer said.
On the South Hill, the status of power varied almost block by block.
Rocket Market on High Drive was forced to close early due to a power outage, but businesses not far south on 57th Avenue were operating without interruption. Traffic signals at the corner of 37th Avenue and Grand Boulevard were out, but still functioning in some other parts of the South Hill.
The powerful winds were expected to last through at least 10 a.m., according to the National Weather Service in Spokane. The peak of the storm, however, was between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m.
“The storm hit with the greatest fury just as the morning commute was getting started. Responding to address safety concerns is the City’s top priority today; please use extreme caution,” said Mayor Nadine Woodward, in a statement.
An unofficial gust of 71 mph was recorded at Spokane International Airport, trying the second-highest ever, which was documented during the ferocious November 2015 windstorm. The all-time high is 77 mph during a June 2015 thunderstorm.
“We have a pretty strong cold front that’s moving through this morning, so we’re seeing wind gusts anywhere from 50 to 65 mph,” said Charlotte Dewey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Spokane.
The damage from the storm was apparent in Spokane Valley’s southern neighborhoods. The top of one tree appeared to have broken off against the rooftop of McDonald Elementary School. Along University Road near East 22nd Avenue, a tree fell atop a house, uprooting from beneath the sidewalk and catching a power pole on the way down.
Blocks away, a tree blocked the road at East 21st Avenue right next to Dennis Rae’s house. The tree fell Wednesday morning from the yard across the street, missing Rae’s house by just feet.
Rae, who’s lived in that area since 1959, said trees falling in that neighborhood is common in such conditions.
“Pine trees generally have a fairly good taproot that goes down deep,” he said. “But as we moved in and people water (their lawns), the root system doesn’t have to go as deep to get the water, so it’s more shallow root. When the ground is moist and the wind is blowing like this, it can topple trees.”
Rae, who has “seen a fair amount of trees come and go,” said he is a bit concerned with the others surrounding his property.
“But you can’t predict what’s going to happen,” he said, “or where it’s going to happen.”
Meteorologists said the strong winds will taper off through the afternoon as the cold front that brought them from the Pacific coast Tuesday night continues to move east. Recent heavy rains loosened soil in the Spokane area, making it easier for trees to uproot, meteorologists said.
Temperatures will fall from recent above-average highs into the mid-30s, closer to the 34 degrees normal for this time of year.
“It’ll be a little bit calmer for us,” Dewey said.
Public safety officials asked people to stay home if they can. Parks officials asked citizens to stay out of parks until winds subside and debris can be cleared. Shelter space is available for those experiencing homelessness, according to the city.
Intersections with stoplights out should be treated as four-way stops. The Washington State Patrol reported that trees are blocking several local highways.
City crews will prioritize opening blocked arterials and assisting first responders before working to open blocked residential streets, according to the city.
People can report trees blocking roadways by calling 311. Trees entangled with power lines should be reported to Avista at 1-800-277-9187. Avista said customers should prepare for long power outages and assessments could take more than 24 hours. Customers should also expect long hold times in reporting power outages, and the online reporting system is going offline intermittently.
Downed or damaged power lines should be treated as active and left alone. Garbage collection will proceed where possible, according to to the city.
The 911 dispatch center was overrun in North Idaho after receiving more than 400 calls reporting downed trees and other weather events, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office said. People should only call 911 for emergencies, while reports of downed trees and other similar issues should be made to 208-446-2292, the sheriff’s office said.
Avista reported hundreds of outages and more than 70,000 customers without power by about 8 a.m. Just an hour later, crews began restoring power and that number dropped to less than 68,000 customers without power.
Inland Power and Light reported that more than 16,500 of its customers were without power across its coverage area at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, including in Spokane, Lincoln, Bonner, Whitman and Stevens Counties. Nearly half of the utility’s Bonner County customers were without power on Wednesday.
Vera Water and Power, which serves portions of Spokane Valley, had approximately 2,500 customers without power as of 7:30 a.m. With that count only down to 2,000 by afternoon, Vera asked customers to prepare for an extended outage that could last several days.
Modern Electric Water Company in Spokane Valley had just shy of 4,000 outages around 7:30 a.m. with all but 10 restored by 4 p.m., said general manager Joe Morgan.
Morgan said two crews from the company would assist Vera after restoring power to the 10 final customers. After helping Vera, the crews plan to assist Avista.
Kootenai Electric Cooperative was reporting 4,900 without power at 9 a.m. Northern Lights Inc. in North Idaho reported about 11,200 without power.
Closures and changes
Spokane Public Schools, along with Central Valley School District, Cheney School District and Medical Lake School District, announced closures for both in-person and virtual school Wednesday morning. Davenport School District announced it would continue with online learning.
Coeur d’Alene public schools were scheduled to be remote on Wednesday but expect disruptions, according to a news release from the district. Grab-and-go meals at Canfield, Lakes and Woodland middle schools are canceled.
Eastern Washington University and North Idaho College canceled classes, both in person and online, while Whitworth University delayed opening until noon. Most classes for the year have not started at Gonzaga University; however, law students will continue remote learning.
Meanwhile, Spokane County District Court is closed closed due to the weather.
This report will be updated.