Monday morning, Douglas County woke to devastation wrought by a storm that brought 8 inches or more of snow down overnight. The worst of it wasn’t the storm itself, it was the way it littered county roads with fallen trees.
Many roads, even highways were blocked for days. Power was knocked out for tens of thousands of people. Some fired up the wood stoves and generators. Other shivered, trapped in homes without heat or light. Tuesday night, another 6 inches fell. But by Wednesday and Thursday, many roads were passable and many county residents had their power restored.
As of Saturday, about 8,500 county residents remained without power.
Why has it taken so long for the power to be restored?
The short answer is that the damage is extensive and many power lines are difficult to access. The power companies start by addressing the large transmission lines and then work their way down to smaller lines that lead to smaller numbers of homes. They prioritize the repairs that will bring power up for the largest number of customers as quickly as possible.
Lines that are rural and difficult to access and only serve a few customers face longer waits.
Douglas Electric Cooperative spokesman Todd Munsey said the cooperative serves a 2,200-square-mile territory, much of it heavily timbered, with a mile of line serving an average of six homes.
“We serve the most rural parts of Douglas County. We serve where other utilities do not want to. This is the reason they did not want to,” Munsey said.
He said a helicopter flyover west of Elkton Thursday revealed the cooperative has poles and lines down in areas that can only be reached by foot, Caterpillar tractor or off-road vehicle. In many places, the system will have to be not just repaired, but rebuilt.
Pacific Power spokesman Tom Gauntt said as of Friday there were still 420 places where a Pacific Power line was down, and the company must deal with each of those repairs separately.
When will power be restored to homes that are still without it?
Pacific Power anticipated having all customers’ power restored Sunday. Crews finishing work on storm-related outages in the Willamette Valley were slated to move into Douglas County Friday and over the weekend, augmenting the 250 crew members already working.
Some of Douglas Electric’s most rural customers will have to wait longer.
Electrical systems in the vicinity of Elkton, Drain, Curtin and Scottsburg could be down for another three weeks. Systems in Umpqua, Tyee and east and northeast of Oakland should be operating in two weeks. Those in Melrose, Camas Valley, Tenmile and Lookingglass could be operating in one week. Some residences in those areas may be without power even longer, while individual lines are repaired.
“My advice right now is if you have friends or relatives that you can lean on, it’s a good route to go. Because if you’re sitting by the light waiting for the power to come on any minute, it’s not going to happen,” Munsey said.
Why didn’t we know a storm was coming?
Meteorologist Charles Smith, with the National Weather Service in Medford, said the forecast was based on data that suggested the weather front would hit farther north and be warmer than it was. That would have meant snow hitting only at much higher elevations, not in the valley floor.
It’s also very unusual for Roseburg to have so much snow — so unusual, in fact, that they don’t keep snow records for our area. So it’s impossible to tell how this storm rates compared to other snowstorms the county has faced.
For comparison, if those first 8 inches had hit Medford, where they do maintain snow records, it would have been one of the top two snowstorms over the nearly 100 years they’ve been keeping records.
No one saw this storm coming, not even those trained to predict the weather.
“We definitely missed it,” Smith said.
Looking back over the past week, what went right and what went wrong?
According to everyone we’ve talked to, what went right in this situation was the people. The community came together, reaching out to help each other, as did the county government, emergency personnel, the Oregon Department of Transportation, and the power companies. Neighbors came out to help neighbors.
They rescued elderly neighbors, shared food and generators. Those who had running water offered showers to those who did not. Those who had heat offered beds to those who did not. Loggers, tree trimmers and just about anyone with a chainsaw came out to help cut up and move away the thousands of trees that fell down, blocking roadways and taking out power lines.
Munsey praised the response to the storm’s aftermath. Even those outside the area have been quick to help, with power companies helping each other and a steady stream of new poles and wires being brought into the area.
“The only thing that went wrong was the storm, and honestly storms of the century that they warn us about rarely if ever come to fruition, but the ones that they don’t tell us about, i.e. this one, kill us every time,” he said.
Gauntt said the fact that Douglas County is heavily wooded and many of its trees are Douglas firs contributed to the severity of the problems last week. Similar snowstorms in Central Oregon have less impact because there are fewer trees, and trees like ponderosa pines are less vulnerable to breakage in heavy snow. The heavy rains before the snowstorm and the short time frame when most of the snow came down also made things worse, he said.
At least, he said, people knew why the outages were occurring.
“They could look out the window and see what was happening. It wasn’t something mysterious,” he said.
And he said the way people reached out to help each other is part of what makes the Roseburg area special.
He said the company always looks at the response after a situation like this, to assess what could be done better next time, and that will happen here too.
“We’re always learning,” he said.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office issued a news release Saturday saying “road, utility, emergency and volunteer crews are continuing to clear roads, assist residents and restore services as safely and quickly as possible.”
“The response from Douglas County Commissioners, Douglas County Public Works, and Sheriff’s Office personnel early Sunday evening was swift and immediate, utilizing all available resources. Staff in all county departments as well as numerous community resources and local businesses have offered assistance during the emergency, many of which are working non-stop to provide assistance in all areas of the recovery,” it said.
Ninety percent of main county roads and all state highways were open as of Saturday. According to the Sheriff’s Office, after the storm hit, 95 percent of the transportation system was impacted by the storm over a 10-hour period. There were 1,300 miles of roads and 100,000 trees impacted. Work is ongoing, and most locations do not have flaggers, so people driving on the roads are being urged to drive slowly and cautiously.
“The removal of trees and debris from our road infrastructure is just the beginning of the recovery process. Our staff will be working on a long-term plan to repair surface damage, cracks, re-striping, guard rails and signage,” the news release said.
The emergency also created problems for medical facilities and their patients.
The Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center contacted patients to reschedule appointments, used emergency generators and issued cots to staff members in need, Interim Director Kevin Forrest said. Those things, along with proactive communication via social media went well.
“I’m really proud of how the Roseburg VA team responded to this incident,” he said.
He said the VA is conducting an After Action Review to determine what else went well and what needs to be worked on for next time. For future emergencies, he said, they want to ensure they have good contact information with physical addresses for all employees and to get an automated phone system that could contact multiple patients at once about appointment cancellations.
Did the county and state declare an emergency fast enough?
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners declared a countywide emergency Wednesday, three days after the storm began. That morning, there were an additional 6 inches on the ground from a second snowfall that began Tuesday night. On Thursday, Gov. Kate Brown declared an emergency for Douglas and ten other counties hit by severe winter weather.
The declarations are intended to make it easier for county and state to work with each other and with private contractors to address the emergency. Ultimately the county may qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency funding.
Munsey said the county and state were already working very smoothly with the power companies, so the timing doesn’t matter so much. He said the cooperative has been carefully keeping track of time and resources in case it will be able to make a FEMA claim.
How expensive will this disaster be and who will pay for it?
No one knows yet how much the efforts to clean up this disaster will cost, but Douglas Electric’s costs alone will be millions of dollars, Munsey said.
Where can county residents go for assistance?
The American Red Cross planned to open a new shelter at the Elkton High School by 6 p.m. Saturday, equipped with food, water, cots, and power for heat and charging electronics. The Elkton Gas Station is being powered by a generator. They will be open to supply gas, diesel and propane from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. beginning Sunday.
Other warming shelters are open at the Dream Center, 813 SE Lane Ave., Roseburg, and the Lookingglass Grange, 7426 Lookingglass Road, Roseburg. The Dream Center opens at 7 p.m. and the Lookingglass Grange is open 24 hours.
The Red Cross shelter at the Winston Foursquare Gospel Center has closed.
When MaryBeth Ziegler and her fiancé J.B. Peterson went for a walk in the snow on Monday night in Eugene, they hoped their baby due in a week would wait until after the snowstorm to be born.
The baby had other ideas.
Little did Ziegler and Peterson know that Bradley Byron “Snowmageddon” Peterson would make his arrival early Tuesday morning, forcing the two parents to brave one of the worst snow events in history for a white-knuckled trip to nearby PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield.
That was nothing compared to what faced Ziegler’s parents, Mary-Christine and David VanDermark, of Winston. Once they learned of the imminent birth of their second grandson, the two would spend almost six hours driving from Winston to Springfield — a trip that takes a little more than an hour in the best of conditions.
Ziegler remembers when it became clear the birth was happening that night.
“We were actually in the middle of making dinner when my water broke,” Ziegler said. “We just went on a long walk in the snow before that — I think that’s what caused it. We kept hoping it wasn’t going to happen that night but we knew if it did happen, everything would end up working out. We were hoping it would last another week, but it was just his time I guess.”
The VanDermarks were notified that Ziegler and her fiancé were headed for the hospital.
Despite the snowy conditions, the decision was clear for the VanDermarks.
“She wasn’t due until March 6, so we weren’t too concerned,” Mary-Christine VanDermark said. “She calls me at 9:30 at night and says ‘Mom, my water broke.’ We looked at the weather and I said ‘I’m not missing my grandson’s birth.’”
An already slow drive for the VanDermarks became worse when they encountered a car accident near Cottage Grove, delaying them three more hours.
While David drove, Mary-Christine VanDermark worked the phone.
“I called her and told her I was trying to hold the baby in and I was trying to take my time waiting for her,” Ziegler said. “I was worried because I hadn’t heard from her since like 2 o’clock in the morning. We were really hoping to be able to have her in the room for the delivery. She got there right in time. It happened so early, we didn’t think she was going to make it on time.”
The soon-to-be grandparents for the second time arrived at the parking lot when Ziegler called her mother and pregnancy coach for the last time. Mary-Christine VanDermark rushed inside, where less than 25 minutes later, her second grandson was born 5:27 a.m. Tuesday, weighing 8 pounds, 5 ounces.
“They call him little baby Snowmageddon because he just couldn’t wait,” Mary-Christine VanDermark said. “We expected him to be a little late. We had no clue.”
Ziegler is the VanDermarks’ only daughter out of five children and the second to give them a grandchild. The other grandchild lives in California.
“I wanted her support and my fiancé’s support,” Ziegler said. “I thought it would make me feel more comfortable. She’s been through it before because I have four brothers so I thought it would make me feel better to have them both there.”
VanDermark said the hospital had full power the whole time and her 15-year-old son cleaned their house and made cookies, breakfast and lunch while they were gone.
“We packed our bags with snow clothes and food just to be prepared,” VanDermark. “It was just so amazing. Her reaction, his reaction, baby’s first cry — everyone should get a chance to see that.”
SPRINGFIELD — With the help of a demolition team, the walls of the auxiliary gym at Thurston High School in Springfield came tumbling down Saturday morning.
The gym’s roof first started showing signs of problems on Wednesday, a couple of days after a large, heavy and wet snowfall hit the area. A janitor reported a crack in one of the support beams for the roof. While maintenance crews were trying to assess the damage to the beam, it gave way. There were no injuries.
“We felt (demolition) was the safest route for our students and staff,” said Jen McCulley, a spokeswoman for the Springfield School District.
McCulley said construction crews plan to have the entire building demolished before the students return to school Monday. All of the district’s other buildings have been checked for damage and been deemed safe for students to return to on Monday.
At an emergency school board meeting Friday, district officials gave staff permission to hire John Hyland Construction in Springfield to assess the damage and make immediate repairs or tear down the building.
After looking at the roof, John Hyland Construction came back with a recommendation to demolish the building, McCulley said. Crews from Hyland and Staton Co. were called in to start work Saturday morning.
“The roof that sat on top of that (broken) beam was barely hanging on and it eventually came crashing down (Friday),” said Jeff Emmett of John Hyland Construction. “The majority of the structure was dangling from the next beam inside ... . It was very unsafe to be in the building. Really the best option, the safest option, was to get in with some large equipment (and) get it down safely and then we can assess things from there.
“As we started demo ... it was pretty scary how easy those walls came down.”
Construction, insurance and school officials haven’t made an official determination of what caused the roof to fail, McCulley said. But they believe it was caused by the heavy load of snow on the flat roof of the gym.
The hope is to have a new auxiliary gym built by the fall, McCulley said. The district doesn’t have an estimate yet on the total cost to demolish and rebuild the gym, but it has already spent its $25,000 insurance deductible on the demolition.
McCulley said once the building has been razed, construction crews will take a second look at the entire school building to make sure the other structures haven’t been damaged by the removal of the gym.
Even if the other buildings haven’t been harmed by the removal of the gym, the district will still face a fire safety issue with the main gym, McCulley said. The main gym was connected to the auxiliary gym by a walkway. That walkway, which is also a fire exit for the main gym, had to be closed off due to the destruction of the auxiliary gym.
The closure of the exit restricts the number of people who can be in the gym at any one time, McCulley said.
That means the school won’t be able to hold major events in the gym, such as the basketball playoff game between Thurston and Corvallis that was scheduled for Saturday at the high school. That game had to be moved to Springfield High School.