Damage assessed after Washington’s winter storms | VailDaily.com

Damage assessed after Washington’s winter storms

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) ” Hundreds of trees blown down by winds exceeding 100 mph. Roads and campgrounds washed out by swollen rivers, leaving a foot-deep layer of silt and mud. On the backcountry trails, unknown scars to be repaired.

Winter storms have battered the Pacific Northwest’s national parks each of the past two years, with damages in the millions of dollars. After last year’s massive repairs to Mount Rainier National Park, the latest victim is Olympic National Park, where craggy alpine peaks, forested lowlands and miles of Pacific coast offer visitors the trifecta of a wilderness experience.

Volunteer crews are making the park the focus of their efforts this year ” though workers at Mount Rainier and North Cascades national parks also are furiously repairing fractures to roads and trails left from winter storms. It all means that visitors to the region’s parks once again will have to sidestep some storm damage when planning summer vacations.

“It starts to kind of become a blur,” Olympic’s acting Superintendent Sue McGill said of the 2006 and 2007 storms that walloped the region.

Few in the Northwest will forget the storm that hit the first week of December 2007, when more than 10 inches of rain fell in a 24-hour period in some areas. Two people died, dozens were stranded in flooded homes, thousands were left without power.

The storm forced the rare closure of a flooded Interstate 5, the main north-south artery on the West Coast.

Olympic National Park, accustomed to receiving as much as 14 feet ” yes, that’s feet ” of rain annually, didn’t escape the deluge.

The Elwha River overran its banks, flooding campgrounds. Slides swept away parts of the popular Hurricane Ridge Road in three places, and just one lane now leads to the popular observation point with spectacular views of Mount Olympus and other jagged peaks.

Floodwaters washed away portions of three roads in the Quinault district in the park’s southwest corner. High winds, 100 mph in some parts of the park, blew down hundreds of trees in just the first 2-mile stretch of the North Fork Road alone.

The loop road leading up to North Fork is undergoing repairs as well, to restore access to fishermen, backpackers and other visitors hoping to enjoy the scenic mountain views and wildlife in the area, Ranger George Leite said.

“It’s basically the doorway to the wilderness,” he said.

Total damages have been estimated at more than $4 million. That’s on top of the $5 million still being spent on last year’s storms.

Construction on those repairs should finish up this month, McGill said, pointing to road repairs into the Hoh Rain Forest and restoration of electricity to the area, where generators have been running since 2006.

Other areas may remain closed for the near future, including Grays Creek Road, which is the main access point in the southwest corner but suffered extensive damage in numerous places. Crews hope at least to get foot traffic restored to the area until major repairs can be made.

Repair work continues at Mount Rainier National Park, the crown jewel of the Pacific Northwest that was the focus of a major cleanup effort following the 2006 storm. Damages there were estimated at about $24 million after that event, but the good news is the 2007 storm narrowly missed the park, Superintendent Dave Uberuaga said.

All the major repairs from 2006 have been completed. The focus this year will be on deciding how and whether to rebuild the Carbon River Road in the park’s northwest corner and on trail repairs, including two sections of the popular Wonderland Trail that must be rerouted out of the flood plain.

Uberuaga said the park also will reopen its popular Paradise Inn at the foot of Mount Rainier in May following a two-year refurbishment project. Workers there scrambled to stay on schedule this winter after 162 inches of snow fell in just 10 days.

“It’s been a challenge getting up to Paradise. We lost more days because of the snow than we did last year because of the flood,” Uberuaga said. “Once we got the road cleared back up, the contractors have been up there every day since, and it looks great.”

Just south of the Canadian border, 684,000-acre North Cascades National Park has reopened miles of trails that were impassible following the 2006 storm. Most trail bridges have been restored, and campgrounds have been repaired, Superintendent Chip Jenkins said.

Still to be replaced are a bridge and 14-foot culvert on the Cascade River Road, which leads to the most popular trailhead in the park. The park has the money to do the work, but awaits repairs from a debris flow on the county road leading to the trailhead.

Several conservation and recreation groups banded together following the 2006 storm to recruit volunteers and raise money for repairs at the region’s parks ” an effort that recently garnered a national award for cooperative conservation.

This year, the focus shifts from Mount Rainier to Olympic National Park in the cleanup efforts, said David Graves, northwest field representative for the National Parks Conservation Association.

“Our park system is the most recognized park system in the world, and these are environmentally important areas that need to be protected and preserved for current and future generations,” Graves said.

An estimated 3 million people visit Olympic National Park each year. Encompassing nearly 1 million acres, the park boasts the best examples of temperate rain forest in the contiguous 48 states. Its mountain peaks are home to some 60 named glaciers, and the park includes 73 miles of wilderness coast along the Pacific Ocean.

McGill, park superintendent, said crews are working hard to get the front areas open for the spring and summer seasons, but conceded visitors could see stumbling blocks in their backcountry visits. No one will know just how extensive those will be until the heavy snow melts.

“The work there will be extensive,” she said. “As we start gearing up for the season, and things warm up, that’s when we’ll know more.”

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