Highway crews finally got a good look Wednesday at what lay beneath the murky floodwaters that swamped Interstate 5 in Lewis County this week, and the news wasn't good.

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Highway crews finally got a good look Wednesday at what lay beneath the murky floodwaters that swamped Interstate 5 in Lewis County this week, and the news wasn’t good.

Pavement damage and the slowly receding waters will keep the freeway closed until at least the weekend — and perhaps longer.

An attempt to drain the highway was delayed a few hours Wednesday by a spat between state and local officials over breaching a dike. The work will let floodwaters drain back to the Chehalis River, though transportation officials say it may still take days for the waters to fully recede.

The closure of a 20-mile stretch of freeway near Chehalis is costing the state’s economy an estimated $4 million a day as some trucks sit idle and others take time-consuming detours. As highway crews worked to repair the critical transportation link, officials struggled to calculate the destruction caused by the state’s worst flooding disaster.

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Thousands of people in a multicounty area still lacked power or drinkable water Wednesday — two days after a storm that drenched the region and forced hundreds to evacuate. Many homes and businesses remain flooded.

Gov. Christine Gregoire could only guess that the flood damage will total in the billions of dollars. The personal toll on people living in the hardest-hit areas simply isn’t known yet.

The governor’s office had trouble Wednesday answering basic questions about the numbers of people who are displaced or of homes destroyed or damaged. Estimates are expected in the coming days.

“The fact is, the human needs are going to become our primary concern over the next few days, and we need basics from food to clothing to shelter to counseling to medicine. We are turning our attention to that,” Gregoire said.

The few numbers that were available paint a region in trouble.

About 300 people have been rescued by emergency crews. More than 750 people displaced from their homes spent Tuesday night in shelters. About 1,400 people were without water on Wednesday and another 18,000 needed to boil their drinking water for consumption. More than 44,000 people were without power.

Gregoire said the state and federal government, as well as volunteers, are responding in the hardest-hit areas, which include Lewis, Pacific, Grays Harbor and Kitsap counties.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials flew over the flooded areas on Wednesday, and the agency is preparing to send out crews to assess the damage.

The National Guard has dispatched about 400 troops to distressed areas. The Red Cross expects to coordinate the efforts of more than 500 volunteers from across the nation.

Two nursing homes in the Centralia area were evacuated because of the flood, said Robin Arnold-Williams, secretary of the state Department of Social and Health Services.

Residents of one home, the 78-bed Evergreen Centralia Health and Rehabilitation Center, have spent the past few nights in a middle school and likely won’t return to the damaged facility.

State Secretary of Health Mary Selecky said the biggest immediate health concern in the region is drinking water. People in the flooded areas are advised to boil their water, she said.

Beyond that, residents are being told to wear boots and gloves when cleaning their homes or wading through floodwaters because of raw sewage from overwhelmed sewers.

“This is not a time to play in puddles,” Selecky said.

Longer-term health concerns include disposal of animal carcasses in agricultural areas so that they won’t contaminate water supplies. Health officials also worry about mold and possible food shortages.

Crews working to repair I-5 discovered more than 100 feet of pavement damage near the West Street overpass in Chehalis. The base beneath the pavement also is damaged, the Department of Transportation said.

Draining several feet of water from I-5 near Chehalis was delayed on Wednesday because of a dispute between the state and local governments about the need to breach a dike. The water had topped the dike during the flood and pooled over the freeway.

The Department of Transportation finally decided to go around local officials and breach the dike on state land.

“The governor has made it clear that we should do everything possible to get I-5 open,” Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said in a statement. “This is an emergency.”

After consulting with the Army Corps of Engineers, the state decided to breach the dike on state property “rather than waiting any longer for the city and county to take action,” Hammond said.

Transportation spokesman Stan Suchan said the argument resulted in “hours of delay.”

“That matters when it comes to I-5,” he said. “At some point, we need to do what needs to be done to address this emergency and take the appropriate action.”

Lewis County Commissioner Ron Averill said the city and county were concerned with liability and who was going to repair the Airport Dike once it was breached. County and city attorneys wanted assurances that the state would be responsible if breaching caused even more damage, and wanted the state to pay for repairing the dike later.

Now it’s a state project, Averill said. If something goes wrong, he said, “They’ve got good lawyers up there at the governor’s office.”

The floodwaters are taking their time to recede in some communities.

Robert Scott, fire chief of Thurston County Fire District 1, in Rochester, said it’s clearly the worst flood he’s ever seen. “In the past, it almost dropped off as fast as it rose. That’s not happening. It’s taking time for the water to find its way through places that haven’t seen water for 500 years,” he said.

In some of the state, the flood was just arriving on Wednesday. As the flood crest moved down the Chehalis River toward the Pacific Coast, more areas were flooded, including Elma and Montesano, in Grays Harbor County.

Brent Meldrum has a medical transport business and stored six trucks at an equipment-rental place in Elma. At 3 a.m. Wednesday, the place was dry. By noon, it was under 4 feet of water. He got five of the six trucks out before he had to stop.

In Aberdeen, there were conflicting reports as to whether the flood would cause a problem. The river was expected to crest there about midnight, about the same time as high tide.

Aberdeen police spokesman Dave Johnson said some emergency officials were cautioning the city about a flood. But Larry Bledsoe, Aberdeen public-works director, said he is confident the city’s dikes and pumps will prevent any serious damage.

At least three deaths have been blamed directly on the storm and its aftermath. Two hikers also were killed in a Cascade Mountains avalanche. And officials searched for a man in his 80s from Winlock, believed lost after falling into a creek behind his house.

Officials are still searching for people who are stranded or need help.

Thurston County Sheriff Dan Kimball was in Rochester overseeing a door-to-door effort to look for people who might be trapped. Searchers scoured the area on horseback, in utility vehicles and in large military trucks.

Jeremy Osbun and his neighbor Josh Stevenson were standing off Highway 12 near Rochester, watching water that had surrounded their houses but hadn’t damaged them.

“Our other neighbor floated by about 6 a.m. yesterday in a canoe. He was going to stick it out,” Stevenson said. “We haven’t seen him since.”

Times reporters David Postman, Ralph Thomas and Maureen O’Hagan contributed to this report.

Andrew Garber: 360-326-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com.

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