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Messy Recovery Work Begins in Northwest

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CENTRALIA, Wash. (AP) _ Dodging tires, furniture and geysers of water, Bert Carver paddled a borrowed plastic boat through the murky streets of a defeated neighborhood.

After surveying his wife's submerged car and the high-water mark at his first-floor windows, Carver glumly pointed out the ``For Sale'' sign still hanging in front of his newly remodeled house.

``Honey, it's bad,'' neighbor Sandra Lund called from her front door. ``It's real bad.''

Residents confronted similar scenes across the Pacific Northwest on Wednesday as floodwaters from a deadly wave of storms finally relented, leaving a terrible mess behind.

Authorities said the storms were responsible for at least seven deaths in Oregon and Washington, and an elderly man was missing after he was believed to have fallen into a raging creek behind his house in rural Winlock, Wash.

The storm moved on to dump several inches of snow over the Midwest, where the weather snarled road and air travel, resulting in hundreds of delayed or canceled flights. More than 350 flights were canceled alone at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

In the Pacific Northwest, the worst wasn't over for many people. Close to the coast, thousands remained without electricity, and some towns were still unreachable, officials said.

Military and police helicopters kept up the constant beat of rotor blades over much of the region, in the area's largest aerial search-and-rescue operation in a decade. Some 300 stranded people had already been pulled to safety by Wednesday morning.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, who flew over the ravaged region for the second time Wednesday, said the damage could ultimately be in the billions of dollars.

She had begun working with federal officials to assess the damage and expected a presidential emergency declaration to help speed humanitarian relief.

``On a human level, it's pretty devastating,'' the governor said Wednesday. ``It's amazing what Mother Nature can do, but she can't take away the human spirit.''

An aide to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski said that state would also seek a federal disaster declaration.

In Centralia and the neighboring town of Chehalis, homes and businesses bore the brunt of the flooded Chehalis River, which turned Interstate 5 and several miles of valley into giant lakes.

The freeway, closed completely since Monday evening, may not reopen for at least a few more days, said state officials worried about damage that may be revealed as the water recedes.

At the Centralia home of Gary and Christy Greenwood, UPS delivered a shiny new wireless controller for their Xbox video game system _ even as the couple prepared to get rid of waterlogged books, mud-stained carpeting and a toppled Christmas tree.

They heeded some lessons from flooding in 1996 that wiped out the interior of their previous house. This time, they stacked valuables _ including a flat-screen TV and dozens of Christmas presents _ as high as possible before fleeing.

But they still didn't have flood insurance, wrongly believing their new home was out of danger.

``It's a little bit overwhelming, to be honest,'' Christy said. ``No more floods. I'm done.''

Brad Tegge and his girlfriend, Patricia Murray, stood with neighbors on the waters' edge near their homes and wondered what would come next.

Their interior of their home didn't appear to be damaged, but the chocolate-brown water had formed an imposing moat to keep them out.

Like many others, Tegge and Murray evacuated before sunrise Tuesday, taking their children with them. ``It's been pure hell,'' Tegge said.

Now, they wonder how they will get back to work: Wal-Mart, where Tegge works, and McDonald's, where Murray works, were closed because of the flood.

``We don't know how long we're going to be out of work, or even if we're going to be paid,'' Murray said. ``We've got bills to pay.''

Another boat launched into the streets as they spoke, taking someone back home to pick up diabetes medication. Retiree Sandra Burlow, who also dodged flood damage to her home, was among those who remained thankful that they had escaped the worst.

``We're all in pretty good spirits,'' she said. ``What can you do?''

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