Winter storms hammer Malheur County

Terry Harris (left) and Danny Petty of the Vale Public Works Department dig out a manhole cover in Vale during a snow squall last week. (Pat Caldwell)

By Pat Caldwell

The Enterprise

VALE – Malheur County is turning to the challenge of digging out from a record-breaking series of storms that stranded motorists and athletes, closed schools and businesses, and crushed buildings.

Snowfall depths varied around the county – from a few inches to more than a foot – but as temperatures rise the threat of flooding looms in many places near the Snake River.

Area schools closed Monday – the third time in recent days — while severe weather forced multiple closures of Interstate 84 during the weekend. That jammed Ontario with semi-trucks, and blizzard and whiteout conditions forced snowplows off the roads. Conditions deteriorated Sunday night when a burst of freezing rain descended over the local area, creating more problems for travelers and commercial carriers.

By Saturday night, the Oregon State Police reported troopers across the state had responded to 750 traffic problems – most of them weather-related – in a 36-hour period.

Across the county, people moved snow any way they could – by hand with shovels, with ATVs, and with ranch tractors turned into snowplows. Many took to social media asking for help clearing sidewalks, driveways and roofs – a special peril threatening many structures. Entrepreneurs went online too, offering “fast” and “reliable” snow removal to earn extra money.

The harsh tempest that hit the area surprised many with its wind velocity and snowfall amount.

“For the 20 years I have been here, I’ve never seen this amount of high winds and blowing snow that continues on with subzero temperatures,” said Tom Strandberg, public information officer for the Oregon Department Transportation in La Grande.

Strandberg said that ODOT snowplow crews rescued more than 20 vehicles stranded between Baker City and La Grande on the freeway Sunday night and Monday morning.

“It was a pretty massive effort just to get those vehicles,” he said.

Strandberg said when the severe weather hit, motorists compounded the hazards by coming to a stop on the interstate. “That was causing crashes.”

One occurred outside Adrian, when a school bus carrying players from Prairie City High School crashed. No one was injured and players were shuttled home on another bus after initially planning to spend the night in Adrian. Players from Baker City found themselves stranded in Ontario overnight when the freeway closed once again.

Closer to home, the ice storm Sunday night left smashed structures in many places in its wake.

Several local onion sheds were damaged when roofs caved in under heavy snow loads.

“We have multiple onion storage buildings, and then we have a packing facility and the ceiling roof in that building where we package acme down yesterday afternoon,” said Ken Stewart, general manager at Four Rivers Onion Packing in Weiser.

Stewart said the damage was serious.

“I don’t think we are going to be packing for a while. It is nothing we are going to fix in the space of a few days,” he said.

Partner’s Produce, with facilities in Ontario and Payette, also suffered damage because of heavy snowfall.

“We have two buildings so far suffer from collapse. The Payette packing shed and on our farm place on Railroad Avenue,” said Eddie Rodriguez, Fresh Pack Sales director for Partner’s Produce.

Rodriguez said the roof collapsed over his firm’s fresh packing line in Payette.

“We are done for the season in Payette. All of our operations will move to our secondary facility in Ontario,” he said.

In Ontario, the roof of the iconic Girvin Hall at the Malheur County Fairgrounds collapsed Monday morning.

That happened as Fair Manager Lynelle Christiani sat down to write an email to her board, ensuring they knew the buildings at the fairgrounds were still in good shape.

She mentioned the structural integrity of the buildings, even after a weekend of snow and ice storms.

“My first bullet point was the roofs are all holding strong,” Christiani said.

No sooner had she penned the bullet point than she received a phone call with the news of Girvin Hall.

“I had to delete that bullet point,” Christiani said.

Last summer, she said, the fairgrounds spent $20,000 to renovate bathrooms in the building.

“The one building that has more memories than any other on the fairgrounds is Girvin Hall,” she said.

Damage struck elsewhere. The carport at Les Schwab in Ontario gave way Monday. At Treasure Valley Community College, water got into the library, causing significant damage. Farmers reported crushed storage sheds and equipment barns.

The Treasure Valley Community College Library also suffered damage recently because of the weather. Internal drain pipes that filter water from the roof froze,  then burst and caused a portion of the ceiling to cave in, libarian Christian Trunnell said.

“We are open. But it will probably be a month before everything is back together,” Trunnell said.

Tuesday morning, Malheur County Road Master Richard Moulton said the winter storm took a toll on his equipment.

“We are broke down. Now we are waiting on parts,” he said.

Moulton said three of the county’s road graders and a snow plow truck are out of service. He blamed the breakdowns on the high pace forced on his crews by the storms.

“We can’t get caught up,” he said.

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe said his office was busy during the weekend responding to slide-offs and other minor traffic accidents.

“A lot of people were not quite prepared for the conditions,” he said.

Now, Wolfe said, his focus has shifted toward the threat of flooding from the Snake River.

“Right now it is a concern. The river level is high and the Ontario to Weiser area is where we are experiencing the highest water,” he said.

Ice is the culprit, Wolfe said.

“With those ice jams, we will have to see what happens. There is not much you can do,” he said.

The severe weather blitz during the weekend can trace its roots to December, said Dave Groenert, National Weather Service meteorologist.

An artic cold mass descended on the local area and loitered.

“Once we get that in here, the cold air does not scour out easily,” Groenert said.

As the cold air mass lingered, warmer flows from the Pacific rolled in.

“Coming off the Pacific we had lot of precipitation and that overran the cold air and we got quite a bit of snow and freezing rain,” he said.

Another storm system was expected to roll into the area Wednesday, but Groenert said  there should be a break after that.

“There will be a bit of a ridge that will keep us drier,” he said.

On just a single day last weekend, Harper reported eight inches of snow, while Vale reported five inches, according to the National Weather Service.

The service reported the record for one-day snowfall for Vale is 10 inches on Dec. 6, 1972.