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Thousands of Whatcom customers in dark, I5 briefly closes as wind storm howls in

Winds gusting to 70 mph strike Whatcom County

Winds gusting to 70 mph left thousands of Whatcom County residents without power on Dec. 20, 2018. The winds also damaged homes and businesses across the county.
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Winds gusting to 70 mph left thousands of Whatcom County residents without power on Dec. 20, 2018. The winds also damaged homes and businesses across the county.

Editor’s note: Don’t miss Friday’s updates.

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While the first two wind storms to blow through Whatcom County during the past week landed solid jabs, Thursday’s blow connected with a staggering upper cut that left much of the county without power and littered the region with downed power lines, trees and limbs.

A number of roads throughout the county, including Interstate 5 at various times throughout the day, were closed by falling trees and power lines, as the National Weather Service reported gusts reaching 62 mph at Sandy Point, 66 mph at Bellingham International Airport, 73 mph in Ferndale and a whopping 117 mph on Mount Baker — the highest reported gust in Western Washington.

“That’s not common for Mount Baker,” NWS meteorologist Jeff Michalski told The Bellingham Herald in an interview Thursday. “We have a forecaster with the Northwest Avalanche Center, and he said that was the highest that’s ever been recorded at that location.”

Even the Puget Sound Energy outage map got blown out, as it stopped working midway through the morning, keeping customers who lost power in the dark about when they could expect service to be restored.

An email from Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management Deputy Director John Gargett said that, as of noon, at least 15,000 customers in Whatcom County were without power, while PSE spokesperson Andrew Padula told The Bellingham Herald in an interview Thursday that approximately 60,000 PSE customers in Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties were without power. The Associated Press reported that more than 140,000 customers in Western Washington experienced power failure.

“It grew real fast up there (in Whatcom County),” Padula told The Herald.

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Tree branches fell on a house on Orleans Street near Maryland Street in Bellingham during a Thursday wind storm. Matt Serier Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

According to the Pulse Point app, fire crews around Whatcom County responded to 45 reports of power lines either down or arching between 6:59 a.m. and 3:41 p.m. and seven additional reports of outside fires or hazardous conditions.

Before it went down, the PSE outage map was estimating service would be restored by 1 p.m., but Padula said he expected it would likely take into the evening..

“We’re going to focus on the critical areas first and then work our way down from there,” Padula told The Herald. “It’s probably going to be some time before we get everything back up.”

Roads blocked

The power grid was far from the only thing feeling the impact of Thursday’s winds.

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Drivers helped clear several trees downed on Northshore Drive right before Agate Heights Road, north of Lake Whatcom, during Thursday’s storm. Breanna Beach Duffy Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

A number of downed power lines and snapped trees and branches found their way onto Whatcom County roads, forcing the county to close a number of major arteries throughout the county, including Interstate 5.

At approximately 11:20 a.m., The Washington State Department of Transportation reported in a tweet that a tree had fallen across both southbound lanes of I-5 near the Guide Meridian exit, but it took less than 15 minutes for the tree to be cleared off the roadway.

But approximately 90 minutes later, WSDOT tweeted that southbound I-5 was against fully blocked by downed power lines and trees near the Alger exit. Northbound lanes in the area also were fully blocked, according to later tweets, and it took longer for crews to arrive and clear the roadway.

It wasn’t just the trees and power lines that caused problems in Birch Bay.

Gail Tutus-Walker reported on Facebook that Birch Bay Road was blocked by waves at high tide blowing over the roadway.

Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Kevin Hester told The Bellingham Herald in an interview Thursday that Birch Bay Drive between Shintaffer Road and Birch Bay State Park was closed and will likely remain closed for a while.

“It suffered some pretty significant storm damage,” Hester told The Herald. “There are boulders, driftwood and logs laying on the roadway, and the one lane of the road was pretty well wiped out. It’s going to take some pretty extensive repairs to reopen.”

Hester said Birch Bay Village is still accessible.

While water was still over the roadway, a car became stranded, Hester said but the Sheriff’s Office was able to extricate two people using its light armored vehicle.

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A tree knocked down by Thursday’s winds blocked both lanes of southbound Interstate 5 near the Guide Meridian exit, forcing the freeway to be briefly closed until it could be removed. Debbie Wharton Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“Fortunately, there have not been any injuries to this point,” Hester said. “We have some homes that were cut off, but people should be able to walk to them later on.”

Unfortunately, Hester said a beach-side restaurant in the area was “pretty well destroyed” by the high tide. An emergency radio broadcast reported the restaurant was flooded and alcohol was reportedly floating away.

The winds helped increase Thursday’s high tide to 11.33 feet in portions of the county, Gargett said, “which is significant and will most likely result in tidal overflow.”

‘That’s not something a human could lift’

Damage was not not limited to trees, power lines and roads, though.

Social media was full of images and videos of houses and cars pelted by falling debris.

And when buildings weren’t getting hit by flying objects, they were becoming some of the debris themselves.

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Some of the exterior facade on Peace Health’s Medical Office Plaza on Squalicum Parkway was blown off by high winds that hit Whatcom County Thursday. A hospital spokeswoman said contractors will assess the damage and determine what needs to be done to keep it water tight. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

Part of the facade of Medical Office Building behind St. Joseph hospital actually had part of the facade of the clock tower stripped off by gusts. PeaceHealth communications specialist Hilary Andrade told The Bellingham Herald in an interview Thursday that the damage to the clock tower did not appear to be structural and contractors have been called to assess the damage.

“Some of the exterior facade of the building was blown off by high winds” Andrade told The Herald.

Better the facade than the whole structure. Reader Debbi Honcoop told The Bellingham Herald a whole shed blew onto East Badger Road near Nooksack Valley High School.

Melissa Moeller told The Bellingham Herald in an interview Thursday that her concrete doghouse for her 1-year-old Great Pyrenees, Cooper, blew off its foundation at Misty Meadows Farm near Everson around 10 a.m.

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The concrete doghouse for 1-year-old Great Pyrenees, Cooper, blew off its foundation at Misty Meadows Farm near Everson Thursday during the wind storm. The 400-pound doghouse required a tractor to lift it into place, according to owner Melissa Moeller. Melissa Moeller. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“With Cooper’s house, that thing was impossible to put in place it’s so heavy, so I’m just stunned it came off its foundation,” Moeller said.

The doghouse, which weighs around 400 pounds, required a tractor to lift into place, Moeller said.

“That’s not something a human could lift. It was a challenge for the tractor to lift,” she said.

Moeller said they’ve experienced high winds before, but nothing that intense. Moeller said the farm, which she owns, usually does well during storms but that they had to “batten the hatches” more than usual Thursday. Their power went out shortly after 11 a.m. and had yet to turn back on by 4 p.m.

A hangar door at Bellingham International Airport took actually flight during the storm, Jeffrey Lustick told The Bellingham Herald in an email Thursday, landing in the taxiway before it was secured with a large concrete block.

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A shed lies in the road after being blown by Thursday’s wind storm on East Bader Road near Nooksack Valley High School. DeLaval Dairy Service Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The airport reported via Twitter early Thursday that the winds “affected some flights,” while the Mt. Baker Ski Area had to close operations for the day after recording a gust of 112 mph, according to its Facebook page.

The high wind warning issued by the NWS on Wednesday expired at 7 p.m. Thursday, and the extended forecast did not mention winds through at least Sunday night, though rain was predicted to return Friday night through Sunday night.



Wind is part of weather we experience all the time, but why does it actually happen?

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.
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