State officials were waiting to see if Interstate 5 would have to close at the Puyallup River Bridge, while the Port of Tacoma was watching to see if it might have to halt operations.

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FIFE — In the largest urban evacuation in state history, residents living near the swollen Puyallup River fled their homes Wednesday night with little time to spare as floodwaters spread across neighborhoods and business districts.

Neighborhoods were severed by river water that quickly made roads impassable. Industrial and commercial areas in Fife, Sumner, Orting and Puyallup felt the brunt, some for the first time.

State officials were waiting to see if Interstate 5 would have to close at the Puyallup River Bridge, while the Port of Tacoma was watching to see if it might have to halt operations.

The river is expected to crest 1 ½ feet above flood stage about 10 a.m. today, according to the National Weather Service Web site.

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The scale of the evacuations and destruction was hard to grasp Wednesday night as the river had yet to crest, said Rob Harper, spokesman for Washington Emergency Management. Wood and debris could be seen flowing down the river at an estimated 20 mph.

“This is the largest evacuation in scope and scale,” Harper said. “We haven’t dealt with something like this before. It’s hitting more populous areas and an industrial area … it has a much more devastating impact on the economy.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, hoping to avoid a worse problem, dropped off enough material to fill 17,000 sandbags in an effort to protect Tacoma’s wastewater-treatment plant near the banks of the Puyallup.

Residents were left scrambling to find shelter beds, motel rooms or a place to crash with friends or family before additional roads and highways were cut off.

In the Orting Valley, some 26,000 residents were urged to leave. Later, in the Fife area, officials urged voluntary evacuations for more than 5,400 homes as a three-mile stretch of the Puyallup River breached the levee between I-5 and 66th Avenue East. Once the water started spilling over the levee about 5 p.m., local and state officials could only retreat.

Sandbagging was futile, said Sheri Badger of Pierce County Emergency Management. The focus turned to evacuations and the safety of residents who were being sent to Milton’s Surprise Lake Middle School and five other shelters.

“We are worried about where all the people are going to go … it’s a concern, and we’re working on that right now,” Badger said.

At the school, there were no cots and only a few blankets, and volunteers were hoping to get more food and water. About 70 people had showed up at the school by 9 p.m., but more were expected. Wrestling mats covered the gym floor as makeshift sleeping pads.

“We’re all just flying by the seat of our pants,” said Gabbi Gonzales, a Fife Parks and Recreations Department worker, helping at the shelter.

The Harnish Lincoln Mercury dealership on River Road in Puyallup was struggling to keep up with the rising waters. Carol Bateman, who works at the dealership, said they relocated more than 75 vehicles to higher ground and moved equipment to the second floor.

“We’re just taking it minute by minute,” she said.

The Port of Tacoma, where the Puyallup River spills into Commencement Bay, may face flooding, too, a possibility that could shut down cargo transportation dependent on rails and I-5.

Johnny Burg, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the flooding will affect the area far worse than the storms of 2006 and 2007.

“This will be a memorable experience if it hasn’t already (been) this winter,” he said. “It will be like two feet of icing on the cake. There will be a lot of cleanup.”

Reporters Michelle Ma and Mike Lindblom contributed to this report.

Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or

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