Puget Sound-area businesses are holding their breath today hoping that a weather change will soon end their flood-caused isolation from the rest of the world.
Most businesses said they could withstand a short disruption of the transportation system, but longer problems could force them to make changes to the way they operate.
“This too shall pass,” Safeway spokeswoman Cherie Myers said Thursday, referring to the mudslides, flooded roadways and submerged rail lines that were keeping thousands of trucks and dozens of trains from entering and leaving the Puget Sound area.
Safeway stores, she said, were still well stocked with goods, and she predicted that the grocery chain would figure out how to restore supply lines to the outside world before supplies became threatened.
On Thursday the only surface routes in and out of the Puget Sound metropolitan area were Interstate 5 to the north and by a single rail line through the Cascades at Stevens Pass. Stevens Pass opened late Thursday. Major highway passes remained closed. I-5 and BNSF’s main north-south rail line were under water near Chehalis, and alternate routes were blocked by slides and flooding.
“There’s nothing coming in and nothing going out,” said Lynden Transport dispatcher Barry Zane in Fife. Lynden operates a fleet of trucks that connects the Puget Sound area with the rest of the 48 states and Alaska.
Other than the truckers’ frustration at being paralyzed by the storm’s effects, it was business as usual in much of the area.
At the Port of Tacoma, for instance, ships were coming and going, loading and unloading their cargoes, said port spokeswoman Tara Mattina.
“We’ve not really seen much disruption,” she said. The port has hired a contractor to remove water-borne debris pouring into Commencement Bay from the Puyallup River if it impeded access to port terminals, but the agency had not needed to call on him, she said.
If transportation lines remain blocked for more than a few days, however, imported goods could begin stacking up at the port, and ships bound for Asia could be leaving without their full cargo.
Lynden Transport said it hoped roads will open soon to meet the deadline to load trailers on ships sailing Saturday night for Alaska.
Union Pacific Railroad spokeswoman Zoe Richmond said the railroad “tied down” several container trains headed for Puget Sound ports in yards near Portland awaiting the all-clear on the main line it shares with BNSF from Portland to Tacoma.
That rail line was covered Thursday by 3 inches of water for a quarter-mile stretch near Chehalis, said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas. Once that water recedes, railroad workers will survey the line, repair damage and reopen it to both passenger and rail traffic.
Another BNSF line to the outside through Stampede Pass was disabled by a 100-foot-long washout, said the BNSF spokesman. That washout was 40 feet deep at its deepest. Another rail line heading north from Seattle was under water near Stanwood.
The rail line problems mean a suspension of Amtrak service to and from Seattle, said Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Richmond. The Coast Starlight train from Los Angeles is ending and starting its run in Portland instead of Seattle until the rail lines are repaired. The daily Amtrak Cascades trains between Seattle and Portland via Tacoma are also suspended pending the repair.
Service on the Empire Builder train to and from Minneapolis was likewise canceled because of mudslides near Whitefish, Mont. No alternate service is being provided. Amtrak is providing bus service to Bellingham and Vancouver, B.C., in place of train service.
Not all companies have seen their business threatened by the transportation blockages. In fact, one, Horizon Air, has been booming since road and rail connections were cut.
Before the closures, Horizon had 1,000 seats still available for Thursday flights between Portland and Sea-Tac Airport. When the airline announced a special $119 storm fare between the two cities (the usual walk-up fare is $149), those seats sold out within hours. The airline added five more flights, and those too nearly sold out, said Horizon spokeswoman Jen Boyer.
Horizon seats to Eastern Washington cities, cut off from the Puget Sound by pass closures, faced a similar sold-out situation, she said. “This morning,” Boyer said. “We had only one empty seat from Yakima all day. I’m sure that was snapped up quickly.”
The SeaTac-based airline also provided help to Amtrak on Thursday. The rail operator asked Horizon for help getting passengers from its northbound Coast Starlight to Seattle. That train had stopped in Portland because of the flooding. Horizon provided a 70-seat Bombardier CRJ-700 jet which made two round trips from Portland to Sea-Tac carrying stranded passengers to their final destination.
“Horizon really went the extra mile for us,” said Amtrak’s Richmond.
Horizon’s Boyer said the airline is calling up reserve crews to handle the extra business. It’s looking at bolstering service to Eastern Washington if it can find enough crews and planes.
“We’re even filling up the flights to Spokane,” she said. Some travelers, desperate to get to Portland, flew to Spokane and transferred to Portland-bound flights when they found Sea-Tac-Portland seats sold out.
John Gillie: 253-597-8663