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Northwest storms subside, but mudslide risks remain

SEATTLE — Fierce storms in the Pacific Northwest sent rivers bursting from their banks, spilled boulders and trees into a major highway and spawned a rare tornado that snapped power poles and battered homes. They've also had one positive effect — easing drought concerns after an unusually dry summer.

The big storms that killed at least two people in Oregon this week shifted into California, where snow coated the slopes of the Sierra Nevada. But forecasters said mudslide danger on saturated hills in the Northwest would remain high through the weekend.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said the federal government is making $1 million available to Oregon to help repair roads and bridges damaged by the torrential rains that flooded the state this week.

The Federal Highway Administration on Friday said it's also giving $1 million in emergency relief funds to Washington state, where flooding, landslides and erosion closed many roads.

"The federal assistance is absolutely critical to us right now," Brown said at a news conference.

In Oregon, the storms caused 19 different highway closures on about a dozen highways and 43 landslides, in addition to flooding, culvert failures, sinkholes and other damage.

The preliminary estimate of damage in Oregon, according to the federal government, is $15 million — including at least $5 million to state highways.

In Washington, preliminary damage estimates are pegged at $5 million.

A rain-soaked hillside collapsed Wednesday north of Portland, on the main highway connecting Washington and Oregon, stranding thousands of motorists on Interstate 5. Road closures in both states frustrated drivers who were trying to navigate alternate routes that took them hours out of their way.

Two lanes of the interstate were back open by Thursday night, and officials said they hoped to have all three reopened by late Sunday.

More rain is on the way through the weekend.

The moisture is helping to fill reservoirs earlier and recharging the groundwater, said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service based in Mount Vernon.

But "a lot of this rain is going down hard so it's flowing straight through the snowpack, and it's not adding to it," he added.

Much of Washington's water supply depends on mountain snowpack that builds over winter, and melts in spring and summer.

The latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor on Thursday showed the area west of the Cascade Mountains in Washington is no longer in drought.

Cities like Seattle, Everett and Tacoma implemented water shortage plans when unseasonably dry summer conditions left the region parched.

The storms also spawned a tornado that touched down Thursday in the southwest Washington city of Battle Ground, National Weather Service officials in Portland said.

Officials say the tornado damaged 36 homes and two commercial buildings as well as downing trees and power poles, and blowing away fences in a path 2 miles long.

Johnny Burg, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle, said he didn't believe the recent Northwest storms are not related to El Niño.

"We just had a jet stream pointed at us, and it brought successive storms," he said. "We don't see the effects (of El Niño) until the winter."

Karin Bumbaco, assistant Washington state climatologist, said though El Niño is very strong right now but "in the Pacific Northwest we don't usually see the impacts until after January 1."

Battle Ground resident Bela Morgan reacts to seeing damage and debris from a tornado while viewing the aftermath with her family Thursday in Battle Ground, Wash. Amanda Cowan / The Columbian via AP