NORTH WHIDBEY ISLAND — An unusually strong wind storm that struck North Whidbey earlier this week toppled a massive tree onto a house, canceled ferry trips, caused evacuations, scattered giant logs of driftwood onto a waterside road and damaged the Oak Harbor Marina.
At the same time, the high winds largely avoided the rest of the island, with no reported injuries or damages to properties, according to fire officials.
Eric Brooks, the county’s emergency management deputy director, said though winter storms happen every year, this one was different.
“This was our first really big wind like this,” he said. “We did have some strong winds, but this was pretty strong.”
According to the National Weather Service, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island recorded winds up to 46 mph, but Brooks said he’s seen data showing the gusts ranged from the 60s to the 70s.
Lionel Peoples’ house is perhaps the best visual representation of the force of Tuesday’s wind.
He remembers being a child and sliding down the massive tree on the Hastie Lake Road property his parents have owned since the 1970s. Tuesday afternoon, a 250-foot Douglas fir was lying on the home his family had to rebuild after a fire more than two years ago.
When he came home around 3:30 p.m. that day, Peoples saw the tree “swing pretty good” and knew danger was imminent. He had tried to hire someone to cut down the tree before, but they never showed up.
He was in the kitchen when he heard a loud crash, so he went to the living room where he saw cracks in the wall and the tree blocking the main entrance to the house.
North Whidbey Fire and Rescue Battallion Chief Jobie Gause was one of the first to respond.
“I could literally hear the window cracking as the pressure of the tree set on the house,” Gause recalled.
Because of the cracks on the house’s front bearing wall, Peoples and his parents had to evacuate. They will be able to return once the tree is cut into pieces and removed.
In the meantime, the Peoples family chose to stay in a hotel and declined help from the Red Cross, telling the nonprofit to spare its resources for families who have greater need.
Additionally, insurance should cover the cost of repairing the house, Peoples said. Still, he was frustrated.
“It sucks,” he said. “We just spent quite a bit of money on the house, and now we got to do it again.”
Gause said other residents had to be evacuated as well. At West Beach, where the waves covered the road with debris and driftwood logs from the beach, the water forced its way into a house and flooded the basement. The two owners, who said they had recently bought the building, were given life jackets and escorted out, later to be assisted by the Red Cross.
The large amount of debris prompted Island County and the sheriff’s office to close West Beach Road between Swantown Road and Happy Lane. Some curious passersby and a Whidbey News-Times reporter struggled to stand still as the wind tried to push them away. Not too far away, a group of people took advantage of the wind to kite surf.
Some longtime residents wrote on Facebook it was the worst wind they had seen. Peter Mattson, who has owned a house on West Beach Road since 2015, believes it was worse than the November 2021 storm.
“Worst storm I’ve seen, huge waves,” he said, taking a break from cleaning up his yard Wednesday. Though he wasn’t living in the house when the storm hit, he came to check the building and witnessed “not a spray, but waves” hit the windows on the second floor. The deck boards, which had survived prior weather events, popped up.
Mattson praised the county for being “incredibly proactive” in responding to the situation.
Mattson’s nextdoor neighbors were also cleaning up the mess caused by the storm.
Marie Franco said she and her husband, Lenny, saw the water rise above the bulkhead from the cameras placed outside of the vacation home they’ve owned since 2021. Soon after, the whole yard was underwater.
“It was like a flowing river,” she said.
The pile of firewood and the standing logs separating her property from Mattson’s were washed away, as were some siding boards on the lower level of the house. A log broke the outer pane of one of their windows, and some water came in but did not cause significant damage.
Still, when the couple came to assess the damage the following day, they were surprised to see the protections they put in place — such as water resistant walls, solid picture windows and a barrier that shielded the house from large logs — helped reduce the impact of the storm.
Though they may not be able to use their barbecue anymore or find their porch mat again, Franco said Whidbey’s people and beauty are worth a few days of cleaning up. She was grateful to the county for the quick response, but said she’d like to see an easier permitting process for homeowners like herself who want to protect their houses from ending up in Puget Sound.
Farther south, sea conditions led to the suspension and delay of multiple trips on the Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry route, according to Washington State Ferries’ posts on X, formerly known as Twitter.
The agency also shared a video taken by an employee aboard a vessel caught in rough sea conditions near the Strait of Juan de Fuca. There were no passengers on the ferry Issaquah, which was traveling from Bainbridge Island to Anacortes. Still, many users reacted with shock at the sight of water sloshing on the car deck, where one employee’s car was damaged.
“The captain reported that the weather during the transfer was fine and the forecasted weather was looking good,” the agency posted on X. “After they exited the shelter of the sound, the seas were much rougher than expected.”
Spokesperson Ian Sterling said the boats are designed to endure such conditions.
Oak Harbor City Administrator Blaine Oborn confirmed the marina sustained damage, but he didn’t provide details.
“I have asked Parks and Recreation Director Brian Smith to provide City Council with an update regarding the damage at the January 16 City Council Meeting,” he wrote.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News Times, a sibling publication to The Herald.