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Widespread snowstorm wallops Seattle area

SEATTLE — A widespread snowstorm walloped western Washington on Wednesday, with the heaviest blow missing Seattle and hitting the Olympia area, causing accidents, closing schools and canceling flights at Sea-Tac Airport.

There were 95 accidents in an eight-hour period in Pierce and Thurston counties, which include Tacoma and Olympia, State Trooper Guy Gill said Wednesday morning. Most were spinouts.

“You need to pick a rut and stay in it. If you get off the beaten path, you’re in deep trouble,” Gill said. “I saw a guy in my rear mirror — I saw headlights and tail lights and headlights and tail lights again as he spun around off the road.”

“For the first time in my career I had to put chains on,” Gill said. “You stay in the path laid down on the freeway. You get off that, you are in trouble.”

Olympia had about a foot of new snow on the ground by 7:30 a.m. The city could break its record of 14 inches of snow in a 24-hour period, said Brad Colman, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Seattle. Areas south of Olympia could get 20 inches.

“They’re getting hammered,” Colman said.

Tacoma had about 7 inches of snow for the morning rush hour. Seattle had compact snow and ice on roads for commuters. Lesser amounts were reported north of Seattle.

Southeast Washington also is getting a good shot of snow with 6 to 10 inches expected in the Palouse, said meteorologist Colby Neuman at the Weather Service office, where only 2 to 4 inches were expected.

“This will be right up with the most snow this season,” Neuman said. “This has been an un-snowy winter.”

Heavy snow has been falling in Washington’s mountains with up to 2 feet of fresh snow expected by Thursday. Interstate 90 across Snoqualmie Pass was shut down for much of Tuesday for avalanche control work.

Washington residents had plenty of warning as snow showers started over the weekend. With the big blow in sight, Seattle and other school districts canceled classes in advance.

Alaska Airlines announced late Tuesday that it canceled 38 flights into and out of Seattle and Portland, Ore. Several downtown Seattle hotels reported all their rooms were booked. Elsewhere, shoppers stocked up on groceries.

The state Emergency Management Division activated its operations center at Camp Murray on Wednesday to help deal with the snowstorm, but cities and counties were handling the situation on their own, said spokesman Mark Clemens. Nonetheless, representatives of the emergency division, National Guard, Transportation Department, Washington State Patrol and other agencies were ready to coordinate their work.

Seattle also activated its Emergency Operations Center. The city’s Transportation Department has 33 vehicles out, focusing on keeping arterials and bus routes open. In advance Tuesday, they spread 4,000 gallons of brine and 113 tons of salt, said spokesman David Takami.

Many courts and government offices and libraries closed. Garbage collection was postponed. Sen. Patty Murray canceled her event at a Tacoma company where she planned to talk about employing veterans.

Forecasters expected the weather to transition back to normal Thursday and “good old rain back Friday and Saturday,” meteorologist Colman said.