Groceries will reach more shelves, students will return to campus, and families will travel home when Interstate 90 opens through Snoqualmie Pass sometime Sunday afternoon, as transportation officials are predicting.
The return of traffic through the pass, which normally reaches 30,000 vehicles per day, would end three days of limbo that included sleepovers by truckers parked in Ellensburg, North Bend and even Tumwater.
The Washington State Department of Transportation was still receiving updates from crews late Sunday morning and expected to announce a reopening plan at noon, said regional spokesperson Meagan Lott.
The agency said in a post just after 11 a.m. to the Snoqualmie Pass Twitter account that more work remains. “We finally got a break in the weather, but we have lots of snow to move still in order to get things back open. We will have an update with that information this afternoon.”
Blewett Pass, on Highway 97 between Cle Elum and Wenatchee, is also on pace to reopen Sunday. But fallen snow and debris will close Highway 12 over White Pass until Monday, and Highway 2 through Stevens Pass won’t be ready to reopen until maybe Tuesday, the state announced.
Washington state’s four main highway passes have been barricaded since Thursday morning in the thick of a crippling combination of heavy snow and rain and what WSDOT considered the worst mountain snowstorm in 20 years. Since then, an additional 26 inches of snow fell, bringing the season total to 286 inches, twice the usual accumulation.
With no alternative routes, travel and commerce over the mountains became impossible. And for a few hours Friday, encroaching floodwaters from the Chehalis River and tributaries prompted I-5 to close for 20 miles south of Puget Sound — effectively making the Seattle metro area a temporary island.
As I-90 crews made progress, they reopened limited access for local trips between Ellensburg and Easton. But crews were unable to begin clearing the passes until Friday afternoon because of extreme avalanche risk, Lott said.
On the west side of Snoqualmie Pass, officials have tallied 38 natural avalanches, meaning they were not triggered intentionally.
Stevens Pass is trickier. Snowslides there resulted in snowbanks up to 35 feet high, the department said. To the east, on Highway 2, near Tumwater Canyon, WSDOT tallied 208 snowslides over the road. The dicey conditions make work slow.
Buried in snowdrifts
In Leavenworth, a winter vacation destination on the east slopes of the Cascades, there has been too much winter. The city declared a state of emergency Friday and requested help from the National Guard after 4 feet of snow fell in 48 hours.
Kelly Kortman owns four cabins in the Leavenworth-Wenatchee area that he rents to vacationers. He has spent the past three days shuttling between the cabins, clearing snow off decks and roofs, trying to make sure they don’t collapse.
“We had to dig trenches through like, 6 feet of snow, to get to the properties to shovel,” Kortman said.
“It is a surreal state of affairs, it’s beyond the pale, it’s beyond normal human cognizance…” he said.
Jodiek Pratt has spent the past three days trying to save 90 animals at her Refuge River Ranch, a home for rescue chickens, goats, alpacas, horses, ponies, a 500-pound hog named Big Mama, and a turkey named George Washington.
When Pratt woke up Thursday it had already been quite a winter. Two months ago, an alpaca lost an eye in a mountain lion attack that also killed several chickens. Last week the pipes froze. Thursday brought so much snow she couldn’t make it to her barns. The goat shelter was buried, the entryway totally blocked by fluffy whiteness. Animals couldn’t get to their feed. Water troughs had disappeared, entombed in pillowy powder.
She put out a call for help on Facebook, but nobody could get to her.
“People from Wenatchee or neighboring towns wanted to come but couldn’t, they couldn’t get in the driveway,” Pratt said. “The goal then was to get the gates open, be able to get inside pens, create paths, make sure everyone had access to food and water.”
That took all day.
The snow didn’t stop. The pathways had to be re-dug Friday.
Christina Wollman of Roslyn, in the foothills east of Snoqualmie Pass, had a family member drive her back east to Spokane to catch a short flight to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport late Saturday, rather than risk missing a Sunday noon flight to her vacation while I-90 remained closed.
“It was pretty nice because there’s not very much traffic,” she said. Hardly any trucks. But that itinerary turned the trans-Cascade trip into seven hours, compared to her normal two hours on an airport shuttle van, she said.
Parts of I-90 were nearly plowed to a drivable surface by Saturday afternoon, a WSDOT photo showed, after avalanche crews finished releasing snow on Friday, and plowers on Saturday carved multiple lanes in their rush to reopen Sunday. Snoqualmie Pass had a team of 20 workers on site, Lott said.
WSDOT’s East region, still under snow, sent one of its three tow-plows from Spokane County to Snoqualmie Pass. A tow-plow is a trailer with a plow blade attached to the main plowing truck so that on wide freeways an equipment operator can clear two lanes simultaneously. A blower truck from Davenport, west of Spokane, went to Blewett Pass.
Avalanche control workers won’t need to fire WSDOT’s World War II cannon at Snoqualmie Pass hillsides. Workers did ride a lift chair at closed Alpental resort, to ski toward an avalanche chute and drop dynamite into the snow, Lott said.
Stevens Pass struggles
But at Stevens Pass, where snow slides reportedly covered the road by 35 feet in places, officials are aiming for Tuesday. The avalanche control group carved a workers-only path all the way across on Saturday, said spokesperson Lauren Loebsack. Some 208 natural avalanches fell on Highway 2 in Tumwater Canyon, a tree-lined area immediately uphill from Leavenworth.
No decision has been made yet about whether to “helibomb” summit-area slopes, by dropping ordnance from a chopper, Loebsack said. That’s sometimes done in spots where loose snow sits higher than WSDOT’s cable system can reach, to convey explosives up from the roadside.
Years ago, two parents died on a family drive through Stevens Pass when a snow-laden tree fell on their car, amid strong winds, after a state trooper suggested a closure. Since that tragedy, WSDOT says it has added precautions, including arborist inspections during paving work last year, and occasional clearing of unstable trees.
Yet another challenge is a power and cellular outage Saturday. Loebsack said officials need to weigh whether it’s safe to reopen Stevens Pass before re-establishing phone service.
Snoqualmie Pass had a crew of about 20 people Saturday, which is about a full group without workers getting in each other’s way, Lott said.
“Because I-90 is our main east-west corridor, we are trying to get that open sooner,” she said. Besides lane clearing, workers need to dig out drainage grates so that melting water doesn’t pond in the roadway and cause drivers to hydroplane.
Washington State University remains on its timeline to cancel Monday and Tuesday classes in Pullman, response to the four pass closures, to give students ample time to cross the state once highways reopen. WSU repeated that timeline in an update posted Saturday.
When the pass reopens, Washington State Patrol advises drivers to pack their patience, along with warm clothes, a shovel, food, medications, a cellphone with charger, and tire chains.
Since Dec. 1, troopers contacted 382 drivers and issued 302 citations — primarily to truckers — for failure to use chains statewide, said Sgt. Darren Wright.
Although Interstate 5 reopened Friday as the waters receded, some other routes remain closed. Highway 109 near Ocean Shores and Highway 12 near Rochester were still flooded Saturday in the Grays Harbor area, said Tina Werner, a spokesperson with WSDOT.
The Chehalis and Skookumchuck rivers near Centralia were quickly receding and expected to drop below flood stage Sunday, the National Weather Service predicted.
At least one person was killed by the floods: Delbert Pratt, 72, was found dead in his vehicle not far from his home in Cosmopolis, Grays Harbor County, on Saturday, The Associated Press reported.
I-5 between Center Drive and Dupont, Pierce County, near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, was reduced to one lane Saturday night, and scheduled to reopen 7 a.m. Sunday, so crews could repair potholes that appeared during recent low temperatures, said Werner.
Drivers and cyclists all over the state can expect new potholes and cracking because of the mountain blizzards and lowland freezes. The Seattle Department of Transportation warned travelers to expect worse damage than usual, and that its repair teams, which filled 15,000 damaged spots a year ago, will take longer than the standard three-day response.
Meanwhile, weather in the central Puget Sound area should be quite a bit drier than the drenching conditions of the previous days.
Seattle should enjoy mostly-sunny skies on Sunday, returning to a 50% chance of rain Monday, but with a forecast of less than one-tenth of an inch. There’s some potential for heavier rain Tuesday through Thursday morning, but the main precipitation is expected to fall in Canada. Puget Sound area temperatures will be mostly in the 40s all week.
Snoqualmie Pass is forecast to be sunny on Sunday, with evening gusts up to 29 mph.
Staff reporter David Gutman contributed to this report.