Government and utility crews were hard at work Friday after Thurston County was walloped by a series of severe thunderstorms and downbursts Thursday that brought down trees and power lines that blocked roads and damaged homes and other buildings.
Thurston County was the hardest hit by the storms that swept through Western Washington Thursday afternoon and evening, according to Josh Smith, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Seattle. The worst of the storm tracked diagonally through the county, leaving the most serious damage in the Tenino area, Tumwater and parts of Lacey.
“Olympia airport gusted to 49 (mph),” Smith said. “We think there were higher winds, judging by the damage, maybe 70 mph in other areas.”
As of Friday afternoon, about 9,300 homes and businesses were still without power in Western Washington, most of those in Thurston County, according to Puget Sound Energy. Crews would work through the night, the utility said.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Olympia City Hall was closed due to a power outage Friday morning. North Thurston Public Schools canceled school, East Olympia Elementary School and Olympia Waldorf School were closed, and Tumwater schools ran two hours late.
“Public Works has four crews out today doing storm cleanup,” Meghan Porter, a spokeswoman for Thurston County, said Friday.
Much of the repair and maintenance work will have to take place next week, she said.
“The biggest challenge right now is power lines are down,” Porter said Friday. “Crews can only go as fast as PSE can clear the roads of the power lines.”
Lacey Public Works Director Scott Egger said the storm moved through the city from the southwest to the northeast, leaving a clear path of destruction.
“Debris removal is going to be bigger this time than in the 2012 ice storm,” Egger said. City crews will likely be busy for weeks.
Portions of the Yelm Highway, Ruddell Road and Carpenter Road were closed Friday because of downed wires, he said.
Crews hauled generators all over the city to power traffic signals and water and sewer systems.
The Lacey Fire District 3 responded about 5 p.m. to people trapped in their cars by live wires that had fallen on the Yelm Highway, near Wiggins Road. Battalion Chief Patrick Farn said live wires on the road prevented people from getting out of their vehicles.
It took Puget Sound Energy about two hours to turn off power to the lines, he said. No one was injured.
City of Olympia crews will work Sunday to repair the traffic signal controller cabinet at the intersection of Yelm Highway Southeast and Normandy Drive Southeast near Indian Summer Golf & Country Club. The work on Yelm Highway will begin at 6 a.m. Sunday, and is expected to take all day. The signal at the intersection will be dark for the duration of the work.
Thurston County will provide traffic control while the repairs are being completed.
Workers at Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia dealt with water issues related to the storm, and set up a command center overnight until it was cleaned up.
“We had a little bit of water that came into the basement, but it’s all been taken care of,” Providence spokesman Chris Thomas said Friday. “No impact to patient care. No facilities closed.”
Storms like this aren’t common here. The weather service issued eight severe thunderstorm warnings Thursday, Smith said.
“We hadn’t issued one for at least a couple of years before that. I believe this is the most severe thunderstorm warnings in a single day,” Smith said.
Thunderstorms like those Thursday require a lot of moisture in the atmosphere, high temperatures and dewpoints, and instability in the atmosphere.
“We don’t get super-high dew points at the same time as instability in the atmosphere,” Smith said.
“It’s not nearly as exciting,” Smith said. “We’re looking at a continuation of showers through Saturday and then drier and more stable starting Sunday.”
Jerre Redecker contributed to this report.
It wasn’t a tornado but ...
Residents who live in East Olympia believed that a tornado had actually touched down there Thursday evening. But despite the damage, it wasn’t a tornado. It was a wet microburst, which produces strong straight-line winds, meteorologist Josh Smith said.
Microbursts — also called downbursts — happen when air cools quickly inside a thunderstorm, moves to the surface, hits the ground and then spreads horizontally on the ground, Smith said.
Microbursts can create more damage than a weak tornado, and they’re responsible for many lethal airplane crashes. Winds at the surface can exceed 100 mph in the strongest microbursts.
Microbursts tend to affect a small area, no larger than a few square miles in most cases. While there is a marked swirl in tornado debris on the ground when viewed from above, microbursts produce damage in a starburst pattern, with straight-line winds radiating away from the point of impact.