Officials assess flood damage at Mount Rainier; national park may remain closed for weeks

Friday, November 10th 2006, 6:17 am

By: News On 6

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) _ Nearly 18 inches of rain in 36 hours.

That's how much fell this week at Mount Rainier National Park, one of the crown jewels of the Pacific Northwest. The deluge swamped roads and bridges, cut power and sewer lines, and forced park officials to close the gates to visitors for the first time in 26 years.

Initial cleanup will take weeks. Park officials say they hope to return to normal operations by Christmas. In some places, they won't know the extent of the damage until after the snow melts in the spring.

``Some places get that much rain in a year, and we had it in 36 hours,'' said park spokeswoman Lee Taylor, noting the 17.9 inches of rain that fell Sunday and Monday. ``When we were finally able to get out and start assessing the damage, it was a very sobering day.''

Mount Rainier wasn't the only place that suffered damage from the Pineapple Express storm, named for its origin in warm Pacific waters. Its heavy rains also washed out a major highway near Oregon's Mount Hood and closed the North Cascades Highway in northcentral Washington.

At Mount Rainier, the Nisqually River engulfed the main scenic highway through the park, leaving a quarter-mile gash in the Nisqually Road. The river now flows where a campground once stood.

All other roads in the park closed Nov. 1 for the winter, though they also suffered extensive damage. Highway 123 and the Stevens Canyon Road were impassible because of multiple washouts. The dirt Carbon Canyon Road was washed out in six places.

The Nisqually River wiped out the main power line, cutting electricity for the western half of the park, as well as the main sewer line at Longmire, where a historic inn sits.

Officials last closed the park in 1980 when nearby Mount St. Helens erupted.

``An optimistic estimate for repairs is two weeks for some road access. Utility repair work could still take longer, which would mean there are still no services at Longmire,'' Taylor said. ``We're hoping we can have normal operations for the Christmas holiday.''

Christmas is a popular season at Mount Rainier, with rangers offering guided snowshoe walks and cross-country skiers hitting the trails. Sledding takes place at the base of the mountain.

Getting the Nisqually Road reopened is key to those activities, as well as to construction on the Paradise Inn, an aging lodge and restaurant built in 1917 that is undergoing refurbishment.

The contractor handling the construction was working to seal the inn's roof to prevent water damage, Taylor said.

Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga flew over the area Thursday to assess the damage and was working to determine a cost estimate for repairs. In the meantime, crews were furiously working to fix the main road.

``Our focus is on the winter access route, so we can get that open again,'' Taylor said. ``But if we aren't able to do repair work now, then it will have to wait until the spring melt-out, and that could delay some of the spring openings here.''

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