Five years ago today, the worst storm to hit the Twin Harbors in decades left physical scars still seen across the landscape and mental scars that will likely remain long into the future.
Still called the “December storm” by those who lived through it, the non-stop wind left the area dark as a dungeon and the lower Harbor as isolated as it’s been in a century. National weather forecasters call it the “Great Coastal Gale.”
Most of the national attention was in the Lewis County area, where news footage showed Walmart near Chehalis under water and Interstate 5 closed. The storm that brought mostly wind to the Twin Harbors also brought rain to Lewis County.
But here, on the Harbor, thousands were without power — with all of the roads closed in and out of the Aberdeen area. Unless you had a chainsaw and a little luck, there was no way in or out for several days. Nearly 90 percent of all Grays Harbor PUD customers were out of power, by one estimate. And, for some, the power would be out for 10 days, if not longer.
The winds started Sunday, Dec. 2, 2007, and just didn’t stop — lasting a full day with regular wind speeds of 45 to 55 mph and gusts in excess of 85 mph.
Even today, it’s not clear how forceful the gusts actually were. The National Weather Service hadn’t invested in a battery for its weather station at Bowerman Field in Hoquiam for times when the power was out. Officially, the top wind speed recorded at Bowerman was 81 mph — recorded just before a Bonneville Power Administration tower toppled on Hospital Hill in Aberdeen late in the morning on Dec. 3, and power went out to the weather station. High winds continued for much of the day.
Power went out nearly everywhere on the Harbor and wind-speed anemometers at several locations broke — except for the one where the wind turbines owned by the Coastal Community Action Program would eventually be built up on the hills of Grayland. There, the highest wind speed of 133.4 mph came at 6:50 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 3. The minimum range of a Category Four Hurricane is 131 mph, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
The National Weather Service doesn’t consider the wind speed at Grayland reflective of the rest of the area because it was monitored up on a hill near a cliff, not inland at sea level. It should be noted that now there is a battery at the weather station in Hoquiam. Plus, there’s another station at Ocean Shores and another one that will go on the South Beach sometime soon, according to Brad Colman, the head of the National Weather Service operation in Seattle.
“The wind storm had only been going strong for about 2.5 hours before the official station at Hoquiam ceased reporting, and powerful gusts would continue for many more hours,” wrote climatologist Wolf Read, in a 2008 University of Washington report on the assessment of the weather conditions on the coast. Read noted that peak gusts at Hoquiam were likely in the range of about 80 to 90 mph after the power outage.
And, Read noted, Pacific County took the worst of the storm, with gusts in excess of 100 mph out on the coast — 119 mph at Bay Center and 140 mph up on Radar Ridge.
“The coastal strip of Clatsop County, Ore., and Pacific County, Wash., appears to have been ‘ground zero’ of this windstorm, with Tillamook and Grays Harbor counties also taking a serious hit,” Read wrote.
Despite tales to the contrary, the National Weather Service did send out a warning about the oncoming storm — it just didn’t predict how bad it actually got.
On Friday, Nov. 30, 2007, the Weather Service briefed emergency officials, including the Grays Harbor PUD, about the potential weather threat for Western Washington.
“Our crews are aware of the potential windy weather, the vehicles are gassed up and ready to go if we start experiencing outages,” spokeswoman Liz Anderson told The Daily World at the time.
But most of the concern at the time was about snow. That Saturday, flakes fell from the sky and The Daily World ran a story the following morning about coping in the winter weather with pictures of children catching snow flakes with their tongues. There were no power outages or wind issues that Friday or Saturday night.
On Saturday, the Weather Service sent out another alert that a gale wind warning had been issued for the coastal areas “with sustained wind expected to be from 25 to 35 mph Sunday night and 45 to 55 mph Monday morning.” With the reality becoming nearly twice those amounts, the community was not prepared for what was to come next.
THE EYE OF THE STORM
Across Western Washington, 73,000 residents were without power Monday night and the flooding was so bad near Centalia and Chehalis that helicopters had to be used to evacuate some homeowners from their rooftops.
Amid power outages in Pacific County, Willapa Harbor Hospital reported handling two births.
Across the Harbor, 32,000 people were already without power when the main transmission lines from the Bonneville Power Administration failed just before noon on Monday. One giant BPA tower on Basich Boulevard on Hospital Hill collapsed, a victim of wind gusts and soggy soil.
Facing danger to his line crews and realizing it was impossible to restore power in a timely manner, PUD General Manager Rick Lovely called the situation an “unprecedented nightmare.”
One Daily World account described downtown Aberdeen as “an eerie movie set out of an apocalyptic science fiction film.”
At least two people on the Harbor died as a result of the storm. Dugan Pearsall of Aberdeen was killed by a falling tree as he was trying to help a neighbor clear another downed tree, and another man died in Montesano when his oxygen equipment stopped operating when the power went out.
There were reports of price gouging on propane and generators and nearly every gas station on the Harbor ran out of gas. Even those that had gas needed electricity to pump it.
About three days after the storm hit, there were still 23,000 without power on the Harbor, but flooding quickly became the new primary concern. Waters from the Chehalis were finally making their way downriver, inundating fields in East County, making side roads impassable and stranding a number of residents near Elma and Oakville. Evacuations were ordered and the National Guard was called in to help.
Although there was a fear of flooding in Aberdeen, it never happened. Aberdeen Public Works Director Larry Bledsoe had worked out the tidal influence figures combined with the expected surge. He said he didn’t think there would be a flooding problem and he was right.
During an aerial tour of the county in a helicopter a few days after the storm hit, Gov. Chris Gregoire was reminded of Mount St. Helens.
“What else can you compare it to?” Gregoire said at the time. “To see those trees, just sheared off and toppled over, I can think of nothing that I can remember … other than Mount St. Helens.”
Remnants of those broken trees can still be seen today with road signs installed by Weyerhaeuser along Highway 101 between Cosmopolis and Raymond alerting passing motorists that “Hurricane-force winds exceeded 120 mph” and “Hundreds of acres of timber were blown down along Highway 101.”
Five years after the storm, Grays Harbor County’s Forestry Division is still holding cedar salvage sales from blowdown related to the storm.
Meantime, blowdown in the Quinault area was mostly left to rot. Although work was done on some thinning projects over the years, roadless rules and wilderness designations kept most of the blowdown from being accessed with National Forest Service administrators pointing out that it would take a legislative solution to get access, not an administrative one. Hoquiamite Bill Pickell, the recently retired president of the Washington Contract Loggers’ Association, estimated that the blowdown was at least 50 million board feet — the largest amount on the ground in half a century.
Since the storm, the community has rallied together to help improve preparedness for the next big storm to varying degrees of success. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell helped secure federal money to install a new Doppler radar station on the North Beach, with hopes that better technology would improve weather forecasts. The communities of Lewis, Thurston and Grays Harbor counties came together to craft the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority, with hopes of creating new flood mitigation strategies. And emergency management officials and first responders continue to work to upgrade their facilities and spread the word that the community needs to be better prepared — for either the next storm or a future tsunami.