July 19, 2012

Flash Floods Hit the Northwest

 7 AM Friday Update:  Forced by an upper level trough, heavy convective showers are now moving through western WA (see radar).  Should continue through the morning and will dry out by mid-afternoon.  Saturday relatively dry with morning low clouds.  More on KPLU at 9 AM and then online at www.kplu.org.

 East of the Cascade crest, heavy thunderstorms have caused a series of flash floods and more thunderstorms are on the way.  Eastern Washington and Oregon are quite vulnerable to such storms, and one of the great flash floods in U.S. history---resulting in the deaths of hundreds--occurred over northwest Oregon in the town of Heppner (in 1903).

Why the vulnerability?  Eastern Washington and Oregon get a fair number of thunderstorms each summer and some can bring an inch or two over one hour.  Then there is the geography--lots of valley and canyons where water can concentrate and an arid landscape that has not adjusted to heavy rainfall.  Plus, folks unaccustomed to heavy rain and the proper response.

Over the past few days there has been wave after wave of thunderstorms striking eastern WA/OR communities and some of the precipitation has been torrential.  For example, a thunderstorm hit the Okanagan area near Omak around 2:30 PM Sunday afternoon, with over two inches over a one hour period  at the Malot AgWeatherNet Station. That is an extraordinary intensity.  Take a look at the radar at about the same time....the reds are very heavy rain.

 The result was a flash flood and debris flow that closed SR 97.  Click on the picture to view some video of it.

Another flash flood struck the Yakima River Canyon, the site of several other such events, during the evening of July 17th,.  The result was a debris flow the close the Yakima Canyon Road for hours (see image).

Clearing Yakima Canyon Road
The radar image about the time of the Yakima downpour showed several very intense cells....and they were not moving quickly:

An even bigger event occurred on July 3, 1998 when 3-4 inches fell over the Yakima Canyon area over only an hour...massive slides occurred than severely damaged Yakima Canyon Road (SR 821) and trapped motorists before they were rescued. (I discuss this event and the Heppner flood in my book on NW weather)

The greatest flash flood in Northwest history and one of the top events for the entire U.S. occurred in Heppner, Oregon in 1903.  Located in a river drainage on the northwest slopes of the Blue Mountains, this event was caused by a summer thunderstorm upstream from the town.  Before it was over more than 230 individuals lost their lives. Joann Byrd wrote a good book on this disaster called Calamity (info here).

Heppner Oregon after the flash flood

Some good advice...if you are living in a river canyon and it is thundering and pouring outside, get dressed and head up any nearby slopes.  Moving a few hundred feet uphill can make the difference between life and death.  And NEVER drive through a flooded road.

More thunderstorms developed over Oregon this afternoon and they are moving northward in Washington as I write this (around 9 PM Thursday)--and there should be more tomorrow morning.

Here is the latest radar image....the thunderstorms are apparent...with a strong one

approaching the south Sound.   The National Weather Service has a flash flood watch out for much of eastern Washington and northern Idaho (see image)--so if you live in these areas...be watchful.

Tomorrow morning I'll be talking more about this topic on KPLU at 9am, and my discussion will be posted here (http://www.kplu.org/term/weather-cliff-mass). (This is the kind of discussion you won't hear on KUOW!)

Finally, as many of you know the final movie in the Batman saga...Dark Knight Rising...will be hitting the theaters this weekend (I am going!).  Batman is essentially out of work in Gotham City is looking for another way save mankind-- it appears he is interested in changing the face of weather forecasting.  Why do I say this?  Check this out to view his practice tape for Washington D.C. TV station (click on image to see his dramatic presentation):



  1. Cliff,
    It's off-topic (for this post anyway) but I just got my ballot and I'm having a hard time choosing amongst the multitudes running for Superintendent of Public Instruction. What is your opinion? I really value it as I make my decision, black pen in hand. :-)

    (As ranked by me...)
    John Patterson Blair (Vashon School Board, really impressive science-teacher resume)

    Don Hansler (former Bellevue STEM teacher)

    James Bauckman (D - looks a little wild-eyed and has a very "crunchy" educational background)

    Randy Dorn (Incumbent)

    Ron Higgins (Math teacher, professional engineer, and judging by his political statements in general, a little confused about what the SPI actually DOES)

  2. But what about summer? where is it and will it ever come??????

  3. We had flash floods a couple of days ago along highway 14 east of Goldendale. Mud and rocks blocked over 3 miles of hte highway, washing out an entire 600 foot stretch of pavement.

    We've seen more thunderstorms in this section of the state in the past week than we remember in the past 5 years.

  4. The Columbia Basin just had a great line of storms roll through.
    Up to Penny/marble sized hail, but mostly larger than pea sized.

    I am in Quincy and it was great.
    This has been an active two weeks in our area with lightning almost nightly.

  5. Hi Cliff,

    Nice summer, eh?


  6. Cliff, be great to hear if this summer is really worse than normal. Sure feels like it to me; I'm normally gone most of July, and usually hear endlessly how much incredible weather I've missed. If this is it, I am happy to be parts south then; they actually get consistent sun in July!

  7. Drove from Seattle to Ferry County today. Amazing weather. Hard rain over the pass but the exciting weather was just north of Grand Coulee Dam where rain and hail was so hard that a small line of us were driving (on what would ordinarily be 60 mph road) at 25 mph with flashers on until we could get to location to safely pull off. Waited about twenty minutes for storm to lessen so could see more than a few car lengths. It was raining so hard and wind blowing that the road looked more like river than road. Gradually lessened and went on to the Cache Creek Pass on the Colville Reservation. Trees were down all over, guys out with pickup trucks and chain saws, but ultimately it was downed power lines that had tribal police closing road. So drove back to Grand Coulee, south to highway two and then back up the other side of the Columbia. Alternate route added three hours, but safe ones. Rivers here were already full. Travel across state at least monthly. This was most dramatic for non winter trip. Have driven through fire and downed tree routes before, but the sheer volume of rain at once was most I've been in outside of flash flood inducing storm in AZ thirty years ago. If this storm had hit with this force in Seattle or Spokane, it would be the talk of year. Amazing experience. And grateful for reliable vehicle and sensible authorities, and those pragmatic guys with the chainsaws out clearing the road. Having grown up there, I know for many their day jobs are logging, so they know what they are doing.


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