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Northwest reels from deadly back-to-back storms

  • Story Highlights
  • Death toll from Northwest storms rises to five
  • The governors of Oregon and Washington declare states of emergency
  • Floods shut down major highways, leave thousands without power
  • Motorist tells AP: "You don't realize how quickly you can become a victim"
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(CNN) -- A pair of storms that slammed into the Pacific Northwest had much of the region under water Tuesday, leaving five people dead, thousands without power and major highways shut down.

The governors of Oregon and Washington have declared states of emergency, hoping to speed relief efforts after storms that pushed up water levels in some areas 25 feet in less than 48 hours.

"My priority is to ensure the safety of Oregonians by providing whatever resources they need to stay warm and dry and protect their property," said Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

The floodwaters came frighteningly close to some motorists.

One recalled driving in reverse for half a mile Monday evening after realizing his commute home might end badly.

"You don't realize how quickly you can become a victim. It scared the living crap out of me," Ed Crowdis told The Associated Press.

Oregon's National Guard was using inflatable rafts to rescue stranded residents in some places. Video Watch floods make roads look like rivers »

"They're moving down the streets, and through the backyards," Maj. Mike Braibish, spokesman for the National Guard, told the AP.

One of the areas hardest hit is Vernonia, whose 2,300 residents have been stuck after landslides covered roads into the town, the AP reported. Video Watch floodwaters rising in Vernonia »

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There were also forced evacuations in many places, including the Seattle area. Monday was the second-wettest day in the city's history, officials told CNN affiliate KING-TV. Floodwaters also made a mess of homes and stores in suburban Seattle.

"It's done; we're out of business," wine shop owner Steve Body told KING. "We just grabbed everything and took it to higher ground." Check out a map of the flooding »

Despite the dangerous conditions, people in some areas were reluctant to leave, but many were finally persuaded to flee. Firefighters in Centralia, Washington, made the situation clear to Katrina Puris and her family, the AP reported.

"They were yelling: 'If you're not coming out now, we're leaving,' " Puris said. "So I just grabbed everything I could and we just ran."

Her three young children were calm as a truck took the family to higher ground, but Puris was terrified, she told the AP.

"They were pretty good. They were all quiet," she said. "I was scared. I was bawling."

U.S. Coast Guard and Navy helicopters have been plucking people from danger zones, sometimes from rooftops, according to KING-TV.

"If there's anyone out there right now ... if they need assistance, we'll try our best to come to their rescue," said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Tara Molle.

The storm that hit the region Monday brought hurricane-force winds only a day after another severe storm system had moved through. Video Watch howling winds lash Washington »

"It's a double whammy we're getting here -- first we had a huge windstorm that went on for more than 12 hours," said Grays Harbor County, Washington, Sheriff Michael Whelan. "We have, literally, across the county, thousands of trees down." Photo See photos of the flooding »

Whelan said 80 percent of his county, on the coast in western Washington, remained without power Tuesday afternoon.

In Centralia, about 8 feet of floodwater shut down Interstate 5, which runs between Seattle and Portland, Oregon.

It may reopen Thursday, pending a damage assessment, the AP reported.

"We've got to be able to see if we have structural integrity in the highway," said David Dye, deputy secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation, according to the AP. "We've got lots of debris, garbage, tires, dead rats everywhere."

About 54,000 vehicles usually use the highway daily, according to Paula Hammond, secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation. She and Gov. Chris Gregoire said it's too soon to know how much damage had been done to I-5 and other roads in the region, but it is expected to be major.

"We've already had a call from the Federal Highway Administration asking what they could do and our message was clear -- bring out your checkbook," Gregoire said. "We cannot tell you the damages right now but they are obviously going to be significant."

On Monday, Washington's National Guard took part in about 150 search-and-rescue missions. By 4 p.m., 75 people had been rescued, according to Gregoire, and operations continued until about 10 p.m.

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In Oregon, more than 550 people were in Red Cross shelters Monday night.

By Tuesday afternoon, the rain in Oregon and Washington had mostly stopped and floodwater had started to recede. The storm system moved into the Upper Plains and Midwest, with parts of North Dakota likely to get up to 9 inches of snow. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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