A Poisonous Tail
For several days before December 14th, meteorologists predicted that heavy winds would strike Western Washington as the "poisonous tail" (The Seattle Times), December 16, 2006) of a low-pressure system blowing into the state from the southwest. Such gales hit the region about every 15 years with significant storms doing damage in 1993, 1962, 1958, 1934, and 1921.
Thursday evening saw heavy rains in Seattle, which quickly overpowered drainage and sewer systems and ruined the commute. One inch of rain fell at Sand Point between 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. The wind came in before midnight and the weather station at Sea-Tac International Airport and at McChord Air Force Base clocked gusts at 69 m.p.h., exceeding the previous record set on Inauguration Day 1993.
Highway officials closed the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge from Thursday to Friday and they stopped traffic across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge overnight. Destruction Island in Jefferson County measured 81 m.p.h. gusts and at Padilla Bay in Skagit County it was 85 m.p.h. A station at Chinook Pass pegged 113 m.p.h. winds.
Damage and Tragedy
In Seattle, a surge of runoff trapped Madison Valley resident Kate Fleming in her basement and she drowned.
Trees crashed down on power lines all over the region leaving almost 1.5 million customers -- perhaps half the residents of Western Washington -- without electricity. Puget Sound Energy, the region’s largest electrical utility, lost service to more than 700,000 customers. Eighty percent of Bellevue went dark. Puget Sound Energy line crews used Sno-cats and helicopters to repair 80 breaks in transmission lines throughout the Cascades, which were under deep snow, before they could address local distribution systems. More than 175,000 Seattle City Light customers -- 45 percent of the system total -- lost their electricity. Usually the utility loses just a few feeder lines, but that night 65 feeders failed. All 4,300 customers of the Tanner Electrical Cooperative east of North Bend lost power for six days. After three days, 40 roads in King County were still blocked by fallen trees.
In Pierce County, Peninsula Light Company lost service to 22,700 customers and Tacoma Power lost 60,000. Puget Sound Energy outages in Pierce County numbered 80,000. Trees and mudslides blocked roads, but crews had most traffic to normal by Friday night.
All of Whidbey Island -- 36,000 customers -- went dark on Friday morning. In Snohomish County, the Public Utilities District counted more than 120,000 outages.
Spokane meteorologists clocked the winds there at 52 m.p.h. and took reports of 70 m.p.h. gusts in Eastern Washington. Falling trees damaged cars and homes, and some people were injured in their homes, but there were no fatalities. Avista and other utilities counted more than 62,000 customers without power including the entire city of Colville. Ninety percent of Avista’s customers had power again by Saturday night, December 16.
States of Emergency
Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947) declared a state of emergency for 17 Western Washington counties, which allowed county emergency-service organizations to access state resources such as pumps, generators, and other heavy equipment.
Housing development that preserved forest settings and the maturation of urban trees added to soil saturated by record rainfall during November set the stage for root systems to fail. Trees toppling onto power lines and roadways and branches, limbs, and trunks broke under the pressure of the winds.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer did not publish on December 15 and although The Seattle Times managed an edition, it did not make it to all home-delivery customers. The Seattle Times fell back on its plant in Tukwila and on the News Tribune in Tacoma to print its Saturday edition. Air traffic in and out of Sea-Tac International Airport had to be curtailed when power to a critical radar system failed.
The torrential rains overwhelmed sewage treatment plants Thursday night and when the plants lost power, raw sewage flooded into Puget Sound in Seattle and Tacoma and in Thurston and Mason counties. Tacoma alone contributed 1.5 million gallons of effluent.
Puget Sound Energy, with the largest service area and the most customers, called in repair crews from other utilities in the Northwest and from as far away as Kansas and Western Canada. By Saturday, Puget Sound Energy had 250 crews in the field. The heavy damage created a shortage of copper wire. As damage reports flooded in, utility officials downgraded their estimates for full restoration of power from a few days to as long as a week.
With the power outages, service stations could not pump the fuel they had and gas lines formed at stations that had power until, as often happened, their supplies ran out. Not only was fuel needed for travel, but for the thousands of generators running at homes and businesses. The shopping mall at Northgate saw a 50 percent increase in traffic as families sought shelter from the cold. Hotel rooms sold out.The Silent Killer
The night after the storm, temperatures dropped to below freezing. As millions of Western Washington residents struggled to stay warm in the dark, another threat emerged -- carbon monoxide poisoning. Charcoal grills and gasoline generators produced the colorless, odorless gas that interfered with the body’s ability to process oxygen. People, particularly immigrants, who had cooked outside safely on charcoal grills, moved them indoors for warmth only to become ill and overcome by carbon monoxide. Women were particularly affected because they were doing the cooking. At one Kent apartment complex occupied by Somali immigrants, 34 people were treated for poisoning. Area emergency rooms saw several hundred poisoning victims. The Seattle Times devoted its front page on Wednesday, December 20 to notices in six languages -- English, Russian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, and Somali -- cautioning residents against burning charcoal indoors.
The 13 known fatalities were:
- Kate Fleming, drowned in her basement in Seattle
- Bonnie Bacus, crushed in her vehicle by a falling tree near McKenna, Pierce County
- Harold Fox, killed in his car which struck a fallen tree near Spanaway, Pierce County
- Markus Stickles, killed in his trailer home by a falling tree in McCleary, Grays Harbor County
- Alejandro Nava-Solis, asphyxiated by carbon monoxide from a gasoline generator in his Kirkland home
- Steven Thielen, died in a house fire caused by a burning candle in Spanaway, Pierce County
- Pritchard Miller and his dog, electrocuted by a downed power line in Gig Harbor
- Juan Figueroa-Gomez, asphyxiated by a charcoal grill he used to heat his bedroom in Renton.
- Khanh Tran, his wife, Dan Thuy Nguyen, and two sons, John Quoc Trah, 14 and Quyen Tran, 21, found dead asphyxiated by a generator running in a closed garage attached to their home. Another son, Doanh Tran, 24, died in a hospital on January 23, 2007.
- Shah Fazli, asphyxiated by his charcoal grill in Kenmore.
Members of the Seattle City Council began asking questions of department heads about the storm response even with thousands of City Light customers still in the dark. The biggest citizen complaint was the inability to get information from City Light about outages and the progress of repairs. Callers were met with busy signals for days and with no way to judge when they might get their power back.
The National Weather Service searched for an appropriate name for the meteorological event and launched a contest by email. Some 6,255 entries flooded in from the U.S., Canada, England, and Australia with 8,000 suggested names. The Weather Service wanted a serious name, but many nominations were frivolous such as Firewood for the Next 10 Years Storm, Chainsaw Massacre, Bouillabaisse Day Storm, and I Hate My Neighbor Because He Has Power Storm. The Seattle Seahawks football team figured in a large number of suggestions.
The Weather Service finally picked Hanukkah Eve Wind Storm of 2006 and recognized Clyde Hill of Burien for his submission. The Weather Service also adopted an official policy on future nominations for names of storms: one nomination per email and the name must be entered into the subject line of the email.