The Great Seattle Wind Storm of 2006

So if you haven’t heard already, there was a tremendous wind storm in the Seattle area on Thursday and Friday, with winds from 60mph to over 100mph. This took down trees and power lines all over the area and has led stupid people to do stupid things, entire families to die from their mistakes, smart people to get caught off guard, and intuition affording one family amazing luck. The death toll at this writing is a dozen people but there’s undoubtedly more to come.

My problems started on Wednesday, when heavy rains and strong winds were enough to start taking down trees. One in particular at the bottom of my driveway went down and hit a power line across the street on its way, sometime mid-morning Wednesday. I made it out to work at 7:30am, but I found this when I came home at 4:00pm:

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Cable service had been out during the day Wednesday, but the power was still on. Remarkably, this didn’t kill the power until that evening, when the power company showed up to repair it and shut it down manually. I was admonished for climbing over this tree, as the lines on which it rested were carrying 7200 volts at 300 amps, which calculates out to 2,760,000 watts. I was told I was lucky to be alive, but I don’t understand why. Wood is a terrible conductor of electricity, and I was wearing heavy boots with thick rubber soles. Even that much power can’t electrify a 100 foot tree. Do you know anyone who is wiring their house with wooden cable? I don’t. I think this was bunk.

Power was out all night Wednesday and was restored at 6am Thursday morning. But the storm continued and started interrupting power service during the day Thursday. At 1:30pm it was out completely. I went to meet some friends for happy hour at the Taphouse in Bellevue, since there wasn’t much to do at my house. Then I heard that the 520 bridge into Seattle had been closed at rush hour due to high winds, and I knew more bad news was coming. I went home and traffic was stopped dead along the lake. Because of the complex geography there is only one alternate route home in that direction, and it’s about 10 miles out of the way – but with no other choice, I turned around and headed up to the Sammamish plateau.

I circled around and got back to the lake, but curiosity got the best of me and I headed back out to where the traffic was stopped to see what had happened. Cars were turning around up ahead and I saw the flashing lights of police cars, ambulances and fire trucks. When I saw the large hose across the street I knew it wasn’t a downed tree.

A tractor-trailer that couldn’t turn around on this narrow two-lane road was pulled off to the side. I parked behind him and walked the remaining 1/8th mile to the scene. At the perimeter I stopped to talk to the two Sammamish police and get the scoop.

House fire, fully engulfed.

On a lakefront.

In a neighborhood of 2- and 3-million-dollar homes.

In pouring rain and 30mph winds.

No way of knowing for sure what caused it until the fire investigators came out, they said, but it was believed to be candles that started the blaze. “Didn’t we see you yesterday?” they asked. Small town.

I went home to a house lit by the glow of my fireplace. It was warm and cozy and I brought the cat inside, who’d had enough of the outdoor playground.

Overnight much stronger winds came in and really did some serious damage. The howling winds, pouring rain and creaking and groaning of the trees around my house kept me from sleeping. Even though I had decided that since my house is on a steep hill, the tallest trees that might fall would most likely fall away from it towards the road, but there was no way of knowing what would happen if the ones above me came down – and the large branches hitting the roof were striking it with such force that they were knocking off shingles.

Friday morning arrived, and though no trees had fallen on my house it was immediately apparent that this was a full-scale disaster. The road in front of my house was now paved with tree branches, leaves, pine needles, and miscellaneous debris. Cars were not coming by at their usual pace, in fact they weren’t coming by at all – once I got dressed and headed out I found out why. Sammamish police had closed the road above my house due to a downed power line a few hundred yards below it. The utility pole had snapped in half, and the cabled upper half was lying directly across the road, its cables mangled and its insulators smashed. I headed back up the hill and three miles down to the Issaquah end of the road, and drove another four miles to get back to where the road would have otherwise taken me. It was closed of course, as was the next road leading up to the plateau where most of Sammamish’s residents live.

As I got close to Redmond the traffic backup began. It was about a mile long to get through the first stoplight – because it wasn’t working, nor were the other two that directed traffic onto the 520 highway or any of the others that merged traffic from other directions onto Redmond Way, which intersected 520. People were alternately creeping through each intersection one at a time in four-way-stop fashion, as there were no police to direct traffic. It took me almost an hour to travel that mile from where the backup began to the 520 highway. Once I did, traffic was moving full speed. But the power throughout Redmond was out too. And the sidestreets were stopped dead with traffic in every direction.

Despite that, the office was like a ghost town. It was running on emergency backup power and dimly lit only in the hallways. Batteries in laptops were still running and so was the network, so the handful of people who were there were trying to get some work done, but there wasn’t much to do since as it turned out the entire surrounding metropolitan area of Seattle was dark for as much as 100 miles in some directions, and half of the city itself was too. In all, one and a half million people without electricity. When my laptop went dead I went home and took it with me to charge it on the power inverters I had at the house.

Friday evening I took a walk down the hill to see what some commotion was that I heard outside, and it was some people who were trying to move the utility pole’s remains off the road with the hooks on a Hummer H2. The report was that utility crews wouldn’t be out until Monday for repairs, and they couldn’t get out of their driveways. After severing the phone and cable wires they moved the pole successfully, but the wires were still strung diagonally across the road. While the road was passable now, the power line would just be increasingly damaged by the traffic driving over it. It would just take that much longer to repair and for our utility services to be restored.

The Christmas pub crawl details for that Friday night were on my powerless computer, and I couldn’t reach anyone to find out where to meet. I assumed the company Christmas party had been canceled, since it was in Issaquah and there wasn’t any power down there either. So I decided it would be a good opportunity to turn in early and be ready for skiing the next morning.

I got up early Saturday morning and headed south to Renton to meet the group for the drive to Crystal Mountain. I was running low on fuel but none of the stations I passed had power to the pumps. The first one I came across was on I-5 at the north end of Renton and had 15 cars waiting in line. I decided to continue on and hope for the best. I passed several abandoned cars along the way which presumably had also run out of fuel, foreshadowing my own future if I didn’t find fuel soon. I passed more stations that were mobbed, and eventually met up with the group before I found a good candidate. I ended up refueling after the ski trip instead. It worked out for the best since the lines had dwindled considerably since then. Next stop was the Christmas party in Snohomish, and then home to a dark house again. I awakened Sunday morning to a hangover that made getting out of bed completely pointless, until the power suddenly came on at 9:03am.

Here are some photos of the carnage that my friend Doug Chase took around his house in Duvall. They’re typical of the disasters elsewhere in the area.

http://dougchase.org/20061215windstorm.html

More photos submitted from people around the area here:

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/photos/popup.asp?gtitle=Rain%20Storm%2C%20Dec.%2014%2C%202006&SubID=2003&page=0&css=gtitle.css&pubdate=12/14/2006

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