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Severe storms hit hard in Pacific NW

Residents of faith-based tent city in Washington State, thousands in Pacific NW, struggle with unusually severe storms

BY JIM SKILLINGTON | DENVER | December 26, 2008

Blizzard conditions with winds of 80 mph and white-outs are predicted for the mountains west of Denver Friday while residents of California and Oregon were preparing for the possibility of flash flooding.

The storms in the western U.S. promise to cause more havoc for holiday travelers who endured significant rail and air delays earlier this week.

In Oregon, Portland General Electric (PGE), the state's largest utility, said early Friday that 15,000 customers were still without power, down from 380,000 who had lost power earlier in the week. The utility had 285 crews working 16-hour shifts to resolve the outages.

Heavy snow from that weather-maker which dropped more than two feet of snow in some areas, has been blamed for numerous roof collapses at homes, schools, barns and commercial buildings. Weather forecasters say the next system will melt most of the snow and add heavy rain continuing the misery for residents. "With the amount of rain coming in with the weekend system, we could have some urban flooding," said Paul Tolleson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, who also warned mountain rivers could rise.

In Washington State, Gov. Chris Gregoire, declared a state of emergency Tuesday night. The snowfall reached record, or close to record depths in 30 of the state's 39 counties.

In Olympia, WA, members of St. John's Episcopal Church, helped residents of the city's tent city for the homeless clear snow from tents. Camp Quixote is sponsored by area churches and supported by community residents. It travels from church to church, limited to stays of no more than 90 days in any one location. As the temperatures plunged below freezing earlier this week, some of the residents of the camp temporarily moved into the church.

In Colorado, weather forecasters were warning that highways may become "extremely dangerous" by mid-day Friday. "Consider delaying travel unless necessary," the weather service advised. "If travel into the mountains is necessary, carry a winter storm survival kit."

South-facing slopes above 9,000 feet, the weather service said, could see as much as four feet of new snow and drifts of more than eight feet.

Avalanche warnings were posted in many areas including Salt Lake County in Utah. At least one skier was killed and two others were reported missing following an avalanche near Lake Tahoe. At least 30 persons have been killed in weather-related deaths this week.

Winter weather has already made its mark across the country. In Chicago, 22 inches of snow has already fallen this year, up from 12 inches at this point last year and far above the average for this time of year of seven inches.

In Santa Barbara County, California, residents near the area burned by the Tea Wildfire this fall, were under a flash flood watch. The county planned to distribute sandbags to residents on Friday.

While Oregon residents greeted Christmas without power, on Wednesday some of the last Massachusetts residents who had lost power in an ice storm on Dec. 12, had their power restored. "It was like a Merry Christmas gift from nature," said one resident when the power came back on.

A three-day search for a woman near Hamilton in rural Ontario who had left to go grocery shopping in the midst of a blizzard, ended happily this week when searchers found her alive but trapped in a snowbank. She was hospitalized in serious condition suffering from frosbite.

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