Region digs out from largest snow storm in years

SEATTLE -- A major winter storm struck the Pacific Northwest Wednesday, bringing crippling snow amounts to southwestern Washington, several inches of snow to parts of the Puget Sound area, wind chills below zero in Whatcom County along with hurricane force winds to the Oregon Coast.

Southwestern Washington took the brunt of the storm, with well over a foot of snow reported across Mason, Lewis and Thurston Counties. A spotter in Chehalis reported 16 inches of new snow Wednesday morning with 21 inches on the ground and snow totals between 15 and 20 inches were not uncommon from Olympia south through Lewis County. Olympia's Airport had reported 13 inches of snow on the ground, threatening their all-time 24-hour snow fall total record of 14.2 inches. Mason County suspended all transit service. Olympia shut down access to all but three of its hills.

Moderate to heavy snow also reached north into the Puget Sound region, with snow totals between 2 and 8 inches common in the Seattle-Tacoma area and about 1-3 inches to the north in Snohomish County.

Communities closer to the Canadian border got a round of snow as well on top of the several inches they received Monday. But in addition to the snow, they were dealing with bitter cold temperatures in the teens and low 20s and strong winds expected to gust to 30-40 mph, dropping wind chills to zero or a few degrees below zero.

Schools throughout the area cancelled or delayed the start of classes, and buses in King and Pierce Counties were running on snow routes.

City, county and state road crews were plowing main roads and highways and dropping de-icer, but officials urged drivers to use extreme caution throughout the day. A Winter Storm Warning remains in effect for the Seattle metro area and much of the rest of Western Washington, save for the greater Bellingham area, until 8 p.m.

In an eight-hour period near the capital, there were 95 accidents, mostly spinouts, State Trooper Guy Gill said.

"If you get off the beaten path, you're in deep trouble," Gill said. "I saw a guy in my rear mirror. I saw headlights and tail lights and headlights and tail lights again as he spun around off the road."

"For the first time in my career, I had to put chains on," he said. "You stay in the path laid down on the freeway."

With the heavy snow in sight, Alaska Airlines announced late Tuesday that it canceled 38 flights into and out of Seattle and Portland, Ore. Several downtown Seattle hotels reported all their rooms were booked. Elsewhere, shoppers stocked up on groceries.

Many courts and government offices and libraries closed. Garbage collection was postponed. Sen. Patty Murray canceled her event at a Tacoma company where she planned to talk about employing veterans.

Some state employees drove into work, but others walked in, and at least one employee was seen cross-country skiing to the Capitol campus. The 60-day legislative session began on Jan. 9.

The storm didn't just affect Washington. The Oregon coast, on the storm's stronger southern side, was blasted with hurricane-force winds and heavy rain. Wind gusts were reported at 110 mph at Cape Foul, 99 mph at Cape Blanco, 84 mph at Lincoln City and 70 mph in Newport. There were no immediate reports of serious damage.

Snow just about finished

Most of the snow had tapered off by noon, but a few lingering snow and freezing rain showers were lingering in the greater Seattle area. All precipitation was expected to end by late afternoon and the region was looking at a relatively dry period Wednesday night.

However, with cold air in place and an arctic north wind still blowing, temperatures were set to drop into the mid 20s across much of the region (mid teens in Bellingham area), threatening to turn the snow into an icy mess for Thursday morning's commute.

The temperature climb continues into Friday and the weekend where we get back to "winter normal" for Seattle: Rainy and breezy as an active weather pattern remains. Rain is forecast each day Friday through Tuesday with gusty winds at times of 30-40 mph. Highs will reach the mid 40s with lows in the mid 30s.

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