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Widespread snowstorm wallops Pacific Northwest

In this photo provided by the Woodland Park

In this photo provided by the Woodland Park Zoo, a grizzly bear shakes off snow in the Northern Trail exhibit in Seattle. (Jan. 18, 2012) Credit: AP

OLYMPIA, Wash. - A winter storm that packed winds of 100 mph and dumped more than a foot of snow in the Pacific Northwest could soon give way to another threat: warmer weather and the potential for flooding.

However, an icy Thursday morning commute was the next challenge likely to face Western Washington drivers, local emergency management officials warned.

Sub-freezing temperatures were the rule late Wednesday with Bellingham forecast to dip as low as 15 degrees with wind gusts to 25 mph. Light freezing drizzle fell in Seattle and Tacoma.

More than 40,000 electrical customers lost power at least temporarily late Wednesday, in many cases as icy, snow-laden tree limbs drooped or fell onto power lines. Many of the outages were quickly restored.

Some residents in Washington state's capital tried to find a way to enjoy the abundance of snow Wednesday in a region not used to huge snowfalls.

"I love it," said teenager Emily Hansen, who had the day off from high school and spent the morning with her mother taking photos of the growing piles of snow outside the Capitol.

Her mother, however, was more measured, mindful of what the days ahead could bring. "A day or two it's fun, but after a while you start looking at accidents and slush and flooding," Pat Hansen said.

From Olympia to the Oregon coast, the storm closed schools, caused dozens of flight cancellations and clogged roads with snow and hundreds of accidents.

Olympia had nearly a foot of new snow on the ground. Eleven inches was measured at the airport Wednesday. The record is 14.2 inches on Jan. 24, 1972.

Lewis County, south of Olympia, had the highest snowfall amounts, ranging from 12 to 17 inches.

"It's unusual to get this much snow for western Washington, especially in this amount," said Dennis D'Amico, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Seattle.

"A storm that that may drop upward of a foot on Olympia, that's pretty significant," he said. "Whether it's over 12 hours or six hours, it's still a lot of snow to deal with."

Thursday's forecast was for a mix of snow and rain, and the National Weather Service warned that urban and small stream flooding was possible Friday, when another storm was expected to hit the state.

Rain and temperatures in the 40s would start melting snow on the ground.

Also, forecasters warned that heavy rain combined with snow melt could lead to some river flooding, especially in the Chehalis River Basin, an area that has been hit by significant floods in recent years.

Officials in Lewis County said they didn't have yet have concerns about flooding in the Chehalis River, but were monitoring the amount of snow they receive.

Washington residents had plenty of warning as snow showers started over the weekend.

With the heavy snow in sight, Seattle and other school districts canceled Wednesday classes in advance. Alaska Airlines announced late Tuesday that it canceled 38 flights into and out of Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Washington State University announced late Wednesday it was cancelling all classes Thursday at its Pullman campus in southeastern Washington as significant snowfall was expected overnight.

Seattle schools were also closed for Thursday, as were schools in Bellingham in northwest Washington, and in southeast Washington's Pasco, Kennewick and Richland. The University of Washington canceled Thursday classes at 3 campuses, including Seattle.

Many courts and government offices and libraries closed Wednesday. Garbage collection was postponed. Several Seattle hotels reported all their rooms were booked. Elsewhere, shoppers stocked up on groceries.

As of Wednesday night, the Washington State Patrol had responded to 261 collisions in the preceding 21 hours, Trooper Guy Gill said. No fatalities were reported.

"I saw a guy in my rear mirror," Gill said earlier. "I saw headlights and taillights and headlights and taillights again as he spun around off the road."

In Oregon, high winds hammered parts of the coast and caused power outages that initially affected tens of thousands of customers, with reports of gusts of 110 mph and more. There were no immediate reports of serious damage.

At the Capitol in Washington state, it was business as usual.

Some state employees drove into work, but others walked in, and at least one employee was seen cross-country skiing to the campus. The 60-day legislative session began Jan. 9.

In Tacoma, which had about 7 inches of snow for the morning rush hour, a kilt-clad, barelegged Charles Hetrick frolicked with his dog in a park.

"I've worn nothing but kilts for the last six years, so I didn't even think about it when I put it on this morning," Hetrick said.

In Seattle, a fleet of 30 plows, de-icing trucks and graders were deployed to remove snow from main city streets. It had stopped snowing in Seattle Wednesday afternoon, but several inches of snow were still on the ground.

Hundreds of people careened down Queen Anne Hill, one of Seattle's steepest, on skis, sleds and laundry baskets — narrowly missing cars that crossed the intersection at the bottom.

Jake Munson, an 18-year-old student at the Art Institute of Seattle, joined two friends in sliding down on an air mattress covered with a clear plastic bag.

"I've done the whole tubing thing, but I had more fun doing this," he said. "It's way faster and riskier. There's fear — you don't want to run into a pole or something."

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