The floodwaters in Southwest Washington stretch from remote hamlets battered by debris to dozens of residential blocks, where the river...

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CHEHALIS — The floodwaters in Southwest Washington stretch from remote hamlets battered by debris to dozens of residential blocks, where the river pushed past a dike, drowned the freeway and forced hundreds of people to flee Monday night and Tuesday morning.

This is the region hardest hit by the rain and wind that slammed into the Northwest. The flood’s toll on lives and property is still being assessed. Thousands of coastal residents lashed by hurricane-force winds still lack electricity.

But at least the weather eased Tuesday. Filtered sunshine produced a rainbow that arced across the brown waters of this flood-drenched town.

Still, runoff continued to feed the swollen Chehalis River, which crested at nearly 10 feet over flood stage on Tuesday. At its highest, it was roughly 6 inches higher than the previous record set in February 1996, meteorologist Johnny Burg said.

Two deaths in Grays Harbor County and one in Mason County were blamed on the storm.

In Lewis County, a dive team today planned to search normally tiny Wallers Creek for an 81-year-old man believed to have been swept away when a bank gave out from underneath him.

A round-the-clock marathon of rescues continued through Tuesday, with helicopter, boat and truck teams picking up more than 360 people across the county by nightfall. And even as the waters began to recede, many streets in Chehalis and in Centralia were still being navigated by rowboats, canoes and even inner tubes.

Large stretches of Interstate 5 were under up to 7 feet of water, and state Transportation Department officials said the flood has eroded the road’s shoulders and possibly created a sinkhole.

“There are places where the pavement has moved,” said Randy Bateman, a state Transportation Department official. “We really won’t know what’s there until we tear into it.”

Though officials hope to have the freeway open by Thursday, that date could change depending on the extent of the damage.

Destruction, rescues

Some of the most desperate situations unfolded in the upper reaches of the Chehalis River, which flows east out the rugged Willapa Hills. The rising water decimated homes in Pe Ell as well as other smaller towns and homesteads.

“All you can see is just the peaks of the roofs. … It’s hard to comprehend,” said Gov. Christine Gregoire, who toured the upper valley by helicopter.

Some families hunkered down through the worst of the flooding.

Tracy and Laura Strickland built their house near Adna 2 feet above what they thought was the 100-year floodplain. When the water rose Monday night, they retreated to the second story as logs pounded their home and punctured propane tanks hissed with leaking gas.

They were picked up by a rescue truck Tuesday morning.

Sometime Monday night or early Tuesday morning, the Chehalis River either breached or topped a protective dike, inundating parts of Centralia. People reported the water rising several feet or more in less than 20 minutes.

Josh Rhoades, 27, of Centralia, said he waded through chest-deep water to rescue an elderly woman. He was unable to get her out of the house, but a high-water rescue truck stopped and took the woman to safety.

On Tuesday, Rhoades was back as part of a neighborhood rescue team that deployed a small rowboat to retrieve belongings and rescue another elderly woman and her tiny white poodle, who were marooned by the floodwaters.

The flooding surrounded much of the recent development along I-5, which includes a Wal-Mart, Home Depot and others.

Some residents believe the development may have helped divert the floodwaters in new directions — and toward homes.

“A lot of people are complaining because they raised the ground in that area,” said Agnes Swanson, a longtime Lewis County resident.

Merlin MacReynold, Chehalis city manager, said the development complied with all state and federal regulations, but acknowledged there has been an ongoing debate about the construction.

Gregoire said the development issue would be reviewed.

“We lost everything”

In southwest Thurston County near Rochester, Mary Earrame said she was taking a shower about 8 a.m. Tuesday when muddy water began bubbling up from the drain. She looked out and saw the house was surrounded by water.

After waking her husband and their 9-week-old baby, they called 911 for help. By the time rescuers arrived in a boat, the water was coming into the upper level of their home. “It was pouring in through the heater vents,” Earrame said.

The family was taken to a makeshift shelter at a nearby church. Earrame said they saved their two dogs, including a chow mix that she had brought back from a weeklong pet-rescue mission in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. But she worried that her three-legged cat, which was trapped in the garage, might not have survived.

“We lost everything,” Earrame said, fighting back tears as she looked down at what she feared was all that was left of their belongings — a few bags of clothes, some diapers and a car seat for the baby.

On the coast

In Grays Harbor County, residents were cleaning up from what most described as the worst windstorm they’ve been through.

“It was like a freight train and it just wouldn’t stop,” said Paula Reisman, a lifelong Aberdeen resident. “Our whole house was shaking.”

Throughout Aberdeen and nearby Hoquiam, residents were checking out the damage: houses missing sections of roof, giant rootballs of uprooted trees, storefronts with tattered awnings and blown-out windows.

For a long stretch along Highway 12 heading into Aberdeen, numerous power poles were snapped off and wires were strewn about the roadway.

More than 50,000 people, many of them in Grays Harbor and Pacific counties, remained without electricity, and officials said it could be days before power is restored to several areas. One big concern is fuel — without power, few of the gas pumps in the area are working.

But some essential businesses were still serving customers. At the Crown Drug store in Hoquiam, which was running two small lights on a generator, store manager Alice Bertram was wearing a headlamp as she filled prescriptions. “We’re a life-sustaining business, so we have to be here,” Bertram said.

The hospital in Aberdeen, which went on emergency power Monday, had to go to emergency lockdown Tuesday because so many people were seeking shelter there. The county has set up five shelters.

Brian Alexander and The Associated Press contributed to this story. Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or