Gregoire asks for storm help from White House

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire on Thursday requested a White House emergency declaration to trigger help for thousands of homeowners and businesses in flood-ravaged Washington state.

The initial request, backed up by video taken during the governor’s aerial tours of the flooded regions in the past three days, will apply to Grays Harbor and Lewis counties. Other counties will be added as initial damage assessments are tallied.

The fast-track request, funneled through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will trigger money for temporary lodging, rental assistance, money for home repairs and crisis counseling and small-business loans.

The state also plans to offer disaster unemployment checks and food stamps.

Floodwaters were draining from southwestern Washington state Thursday, as rescue and evacuation work ended and lights were coming back on in thousands of homes and businesses.

“We will get through this,” the governor told reporters.

State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said road crews were repairing Interstate 5, closed since Monday about 30 miles south of the state capital in Olympia, as the water recedes, and could reopen the freeway to one-lane traffic in each direction as early as Thursday night, probably limited to freight truck traffic at first.

Hammond said her agency has a camera trained on the submerged freeway section, and streaming video is posted on the agency web site, www.wsdot.wa.gov.

“You can watch the water go down with us,” she said.

Amtrak service between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., resumed and service to Portland was expected Friday or Saturday, she said.

The governor said about 640 people were still in shelters, 33,000 customers without power, 18,900 without safe drinking water, and about 15 roads still closed. Fourteen water system were shut down and nine others under boil-water orders. Some areas were requesting vaccines, especially for tetanus.

Nearly 400 National Guard members were deployed.

Gregoire called it the largest mobilization of state and volunteer relief efforts since the state helped Gulf Coast victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The heavy economic impact on families and businesses still is being tallied and the state has no good numbers, the governor said. Affected citizens have “very heart-wrenching stories,” but also are extremely grateful for the outpouring of support, she said.

Gregoire said the cascade of weather — snow followed by high winds and then torrential rains — made it impossible to prepare any faster. She said she’s been satisfied with FEMA response.

Cooler, drier weather aided the recovery effort.

“Mother Nature is still cooperating — it’s not dumping gallons of rain,” Grays Harbor County emergency spokeswoman Lynn O’Conner said.

A fourth storm-related death was reported and one man remained missing.

Damages likely to reach into the billions of dollars remained to be tallied. Gregoire said flooding hit record levels on the Chehalis, Skokomish and Elwha rivers.

Recalling scenes of blown-down trees, Gregoire said, “The visual is nothing like I’ve ever seen other than my recollection of Mount St. Helens” after the volcano erupted on May 18, 1980.

Hoquiam police Detective George J. Kelly, a spokesman at the emergency command center in Grays Harbor County, said officials were relieved when an anticipated tidal surge that threatened to worsen flooding along the lower Chehalis River failed to materialize late Wednesday night.

Power was restored to all of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, the two largest towns in the county with a combined population of more than 25,000, but not without a hitch.

Along I-5, crews breached a dike near Centralia that had been overtopped at one point so water could drain more quickly back into the Chehalis River, a process that could take days, officials said.

Gregoire said she would lead a tour of storm damage Saturday with Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Rep. Norm Dicks, all D-Wash., to enlist their help in gaining federal aid.

By the time helicopter rescue operations ended Wednesday evening, at least 300 people had been taken to safety 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,” the governor said. “They are determined to get back to their homes and get their lives back together again.”

Health officials warned residents in affected areas to boil water, discard spoiled food and clean up after coming in contact with floodwaters, which are likely to be contaminated.

In Ocean Shores, about 20 people were sickened by carbon monoxide fumes from an emergency generator in a grocery store. All were expected to recover, Police Chief Russell Fitts said.

In rural Winlock, police continued searching on Wednesday for Richard Hiatt, 81, who vanished after the collapse of a bank along a swollen creek near his house.

The I-5 closure at Centralia halted travel between Portland, Ore., and Seattle on a stretch of freeway that normally carries about 54,000 vehicles a day.

Most major highways into population centers were open Thursday after as many as 60 state and federal highways were closed around the region.

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AP Writers David Ammons in Olympia, Rachel La Corte in Centralia and Jim Cour in Seattle contributed to this report.

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