American Times: PACIFIC NORTH-WEST - Rain, rain, rain all winter - and it could last 20 years

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IN THE Pacific North-west, they are used to rain. It is what makes the forests lush and green. It is what keeps more Californians from upping sticks and moving there. Rain is what they know. Rain is what they can handle.

So when it rained uninterruptedly for almost the whole of February, the citizens of Oregon and Washington kept a brave face. When the weather forecasters pointed out that the rain has been relentless since early November, and threatens to stay that way until May, there were murmurs of dismay, certainly, but nothing to upset the prevailing stoicism.

Then, a few days ago, came the proverbial raindrop too far. A particularly ugly storm accompanied by high winds played havoc with the electricity supply, toppled trees and - horror of horrors - knocked out the coffee service on a commuter ferry plying the thin strip of Puget Sound from Bainbridge Island to Seattle. Well, that was just too much.

"Of course people complained," said Susan Harris-Huether, spokeswoman for Washington state's ferry services. "If they don't get their latte..."

And now North-westerners are venting their anguish in the only ways they know how - blaming the forces of evil in the world (California, mainly) and cracking jokes.

Like the one about the woman who visits Seattle and realises that it has not stopped raining for a week. So she stops a kid on the street and asks: "Hey, does it ever stop raining around here?" To which he answers: "I wouldn't know. I'm only six."

The truth is, the region has gone through the wettest winter since records began.

Barely one day in five has been dry over the past three months. There have been mudslides and floods on the roads. Up in the Cascade mountains, they had to close down resorts while they spent two days digging chairlifts out of the snow.

Most spectacularly, an oil tanker crashed ashore in southern Oregon a month ago, spilling around 70,000 gallons of oil, killing birds and threatening shellfish stocks.

Because of the relentless storms, salvage crews have found it almost impossible to stop the ship, the New Carissa, from drifting and causing more damage. Ten days ago, a huge tugboat tried to tow the wreckage and its remaining cargo of 130,000 gallons of oil offshore for a deep-sea burial. But one of the towing bridles snapped and the ship's carcass was washed back to shore.

According to meteorologists, this winter could be the harbinger of a general change for the worse. The North-west is subject to weather movements called Pacific decadal oscillations, and a 20-year period of relative dryness may be giving way to a wet period that is likely to last for just as long. On top of that is La Nina, the Pacific current pattern that pushed last year's Californian storms several hundred miles north.

Republicans have sought to lay the poor climate at the door of the Democratic state administration, saying a lot of "liberal hot air" has played havoc with the environment. And former governor Mike Lowry, for one, seems willing to accept the blame.

"Environmentalists like me want more wetlands," he said. "And I'm getting them right outside in the parking lot."

Some, of course, see divine intervention in all those rainclouds. Retribution, perhaps, for excessive exploitation of the beautiful landscape. Or, as the former Seattle deputy mayor Bob Royer sees it, God's scheme to put those uppity Californians in their place. "This is the only way to get all those newcomers to move back south," he said.