If the same storm had hit in October, damage would have been far less, experts say. Utilities hope to have all power back on sometime Tuesday.
As soon as she heard the forecast for Saturday’s freakish summer windstorm, Beth Rogers said she thought of one thing: cottonwood.
Light in its wood structure, and dried out by months of drought, black cottonwoods cracked like saltines as record wind gusts tore through Western Washington on Saturday, said Rogers, who heads vegetation-management crews for Puget Sound Energy (PSE).
Douglas firs, limbs turned into sails, also were shredded in the storm. Entire trees were uprooted as dry soil, lighter in weight, was of little help holding them in place. The result was a catastrophic mess that utility crews were still dealing with Monday, cutting their way through downed limbs and trees, repairing utility poles with the tops broken off or snapped in half by fallen trees.
Number of people killed, including a 10-year-old girl.
Mph winds at Tatoosh Island on Washington’s outer Northwest Coast.
Number of 911 calls the Seattle Police Department received Saturday.
Estimated number of people in region without power at the height of the storm.
If the same storm had come in October, it would have been far less damaging. But coming when and how it did, it was a recipe for the arboreal destruction that has left so many residents of the Puget Sound region still in the dark Monday.
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“You had the worst of circumstances,” said Steven Vogel, professor emeritus of biology at Duke University, who has spent much of his career studying the physics of leaves and wind.
The devastating combo Saturday was not just high wind, but wind coming when trees were in full leaf and when both the trees and the soil were dried out by months of drought. Trees are simply not constructed for this kind of punishment, nor would it make sense for them to be overbuilt to take conditions as freakish as a fall windstorm in summer, Vogel said.
Trees are also surprisingly shallow-rooted, Vogel notes, with their roots spreading wide, rather than deep, in a big pancake in the top inches of the soil. That’s where most of the nutrients in the soil are — the leaf litter and minerals, as well as fungal hyphae and living microorganisms that nourish trees. But it also means when soils are either saturated with water or too dry to be much of a counterbalancing weight, wind can send trees sailing.
“Heat and drought make the problem of grabbing the ground all the harder,” Vogel said.
It’s not that trees are wimps. Leaves are engineering marvels, built to take the wind. Vogel discovered in wind-tunnel experiments at Duke that needles on a pine will cluster, and leaves on a tree such as a cottonwood will do the opposite of their usual work — spreading wide to take in the sun — and instead roll up into cylinders and cones to wait out the wind. “But they are prepared for ordinary risks,” Vogel said. And these were no ordinary winds.
Gusts hit a likely all-time record for August at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, with a peak of 46 mph shortly after noon Saturday. Wind howled at 61 mph in Everett at Paine Field and ripped over Tatoosh Island on Washington’s outer Northwest Coast at nearly 90 mph, said Josh Smith, meteorologist at the Seattle weather forecast office for the National Weather Service. The weather is still settling down, with blustery conditions continuing through Wednesday, Smith said, “but nothing like Saturday. That’s over.”
And a good thing, too.
Crews around the area were back on the streets Monday tackling the chaotic mess of shattered trees from Saturday’s massive storm.
PSE said in a news release about 21,000 customers were without power Monday afternoon. The hardest-hit areas include parts of Skagit, Whatcom and Kitsap counties.
PSE officials have told people in rural areas to expect power to be restored by 6 p.m. Tuesday. PSE spokesman Ray Lane said at the peak of the storm on Saturday about 235,000 PSE customers were without power.
Seattle City Light on Monday night estimated 600 customers remained without power, saying in a news release that officials expect storm-related outages to be restored by Tuesday afternoon. The bulk of customers without power are between Lake City and Lake Forest Park.
Saturday’s storm left almost a half-million customers in the region without power overall.
Rogers, the vegetation-management official, said PSE constantly deals with trees in its right of way, trimming them along 3,000 miles of line and fully taking down some 5,000 trees a year. She has 30 to 40 crews out cutting and trimming all year long, but with an estimated 27 million trees in the utility’s right of way, dealing with downed trees is a big part of the aftermath of a big storm.
The size of the storm also meant crews in the region are contending with hundreds of outages in a far-flung swath of destruction. “It is not very often that the entire region of the service area of 6,000 square miles has customers impacted by a quirky storm,” Lane said.
Clearing trees is slow work, he noted, requiring crews to first get into an area, often clearing debris to do so, then assessing damage and restoring service. Power is restored to large trunk lines first, with work continuing to areas of sparser service in turn. “We had some 440 individual outages, and some affect only one or two people, but we still have to get a crew in,” Lane said.
Connie McDougall said crews were also toiling with downed trees in Seattle City Light’s service area. “We had to fix more than 200 outages, and every one of those is not an easy fix,” McDougall said. “This was a very complicated, large outage. It’s a time-consuming, meticulous, complex job. The worst is behind us in terms of weather. Now it’s just a massive amount of work.”
Roberto Bonaccorso, spokesman for Seattle City Light, said the utility hadn’t been hit with such a destructive storm since the 2006 Hanukkah Eve blast.
“It’s trees, branches, leaves when you have 60-mph wind hitting a power line; it’s going to cause damage. It’s not for lack of planning, it’s just a huge event. Every utility that serves our area is struggling right now.”
Two people were killed in Saturday’s storm, including a 10-year-old girl.
While homes and businesses were in the dark on Saturday, the storm left emergency responders chasing one 911 call after the next.
“Our dispatchers figured they did on Saturday just over 800 emergency 911 calls,” said State Patrol spokesman Trooper Chris Webb. “Normally, I guess they have about 100; Saturdays tend to be pretty slow. We investigated 171 collisions from 5 Saturday morning to 5 p.m. Sunday evening. That’s just in King County.”
Seattle police handled 2,381 emergency 911 calls Saturday — almost 100 an hour, said spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb. The department also responded to 90 traffic collisions, he said.