Flood-damaged I-5 may be closed till weekend

OLYMPIA — As floodwaters receded from swamped areas of southwestern Washington on Wednesday, officials ramped up relief efforts and worked to reopen a stretch of I-5 that has been closed since Monday after a deadly storm.

The freeway is not likely to open until the weekend, and may be closed longer, officials said.

The state Transportation Department began breaching a dike near Centralia that had been overcome by the flood to allow water to more quickly drain back into the Chehalis River. Still, it could take days for the water to flow out, officials said.

Inspections of I-5 on Wednesday revealed damage to formerly flooded segments of the roadway, and crews began repaving work, but about a mile remained under water.

Meanwhile, Gov. Chris Gregoire was preparing a damage estimate for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and said she had pledges of support from top officials.

Gregoire expected a presidential emergency declaration that could speed delivery of food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies to flood-stricken Washingtonians.

Damages could be in the billions of dollars, the governor said.

“It’s amazing what Mother Nature can do, but she can’t take away the human spirit,” Gregoire said.

At least 300 people had been rescued by helicopter, and flights continued in what Gregoire described as the state’s largest aerial search-and-rescue operation in a decade.

“Those folks who are literally homeless today still have a spirit in them,” Gregoire added. “They are determined to get back to their homes and get their lives back together again.”

Health Department officials warned affected Washingtonians to boil water, throw out spoiled food and clean up after coming in contact with floodwaters, which are likely to be contaminated.

The Chehalis River was perhaps the single largest problem. It crested about 10 feet above flood stage near Centralia on Tuesday morning, with huge areas in Centralia, Chehalis and other parts of Lewis County under water.

In nearby Grays Harbor County, where as many as 25,000 remained without electricity Wednesday evening, officials were watching nervously as that water worked its way downriver toward Aberdeen and the Pacific Ocean.

Power was gradually returning to Grays Harbor County, including downtown Aberdeen, where about half of the city flood pumps were working.

At least three deaths were blamed on this week’s storm and the damage that followed. In addition, two hikers were found dead after an avalanche in the snow- and rain-soaked Cascade Range.

A roughly 20-mile stretch of I-5 has been closed since Monday evening at Centralia, stopping traffic between Portland, Ore., and Seattle. The interstate, which carries about 54,000 vehicles a day through that area, remained under 6 feet of water in places.

National Guard troops were summoned before daybreak Wednesday to help evacuate 20 homes in a trailer park near Elma, Aberdeen police said.

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