Buildings collapse to rubble under relentless snow loads

At the Malheur County Fairgrounds, a jumble of siding, roofing and lumber is evidence of the power of the snow load. Fair supporters are raising money to help rebuild after the collapse of Girvin Hall

By Scotta Callister and Pat Caldwell

The Enterprise

WILLOWCREEK – The ritual of morning coffee and conversation at the Willowcreek Store and Café came to an abrupt halt last week, when a portion of the roof caved to the weight of recent snows.

Owner Robin Hutson said she and her husband, Walt, went into the store early on the morning of Jan. 11 to open up for the day and discovered the damage. A furnace unit was sagging onto some shelves, and a vent had come loose.

Light of day revealed the roof was clearly in trouble, and exterior walls were bulging ominously under the snow load.

“I told Walt, I don’t feel safe in here,” she said, “so we got out.”

Ironically, disaster struck not long after they had managed to clear snow from a portion of the roof. It just wasn’t enough, she said.

The Hutsons have plenty of company around Malheur County. County officials estimate up to 60 buildings have been seriously damaged. Losses to buildings, property and produce likely will total several million dollars. The county’s iconic onion industry was particularly hard hit.

Even as the snow relented, buildings day by day gave up and collapsed, from carports to sheds to produce warehouses. The awning, for instance, collapsed at Les Schwab in Ontario, closing the tire store for three days. Across the county, key buildings were evacuated or shuttered to allow engineers and building specialists to be certain no one was at risk. Albertsons in Ontario closed to clear snow and assess damage, reopening Monday. Four Rivers Cultural Center shut down to allow snow removal, but re-opened in time for the Ontario Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet on Friday.

Government offices weren’t immune. The Oregon Department of Human Services was directed to clear its offices in Ontario. Rather than close, agency officials opened temporary quarters last week in three locations around Ontario.

County officials said local governments were overwhelmed by the demands, and they declared a state of emergency. They joined others in persuading Gov. Kate Brown to declare a state of emergency for the entire state. In Malheur County, though, county and local officials continued to fight against snow-related trouble without state help. That would come only as a last resort, and officials said they weren’t at that point – yet.

The weather may soon dictate otherwise.

The same mixture of conditions that existed in late December is still prevalent, greasing the skids for more storms.

“The jet stream is right over us. And there is a low tipping out of the Gulf of Alaska and it is tapping into that moist air stream coming out of the southern Pacific. It is like a perfect combination of cold and moist air,” Boise National Weather Service meteorologist Aviva Braun said.

One storm was expected to land in the area Tuesday, after press time that the weather service forecast would deliver over 48 hours up to 10 inches of new snow in Ontario, 11 inches in Vale and 12 inches in Harper.

Another storm is right behind the midweek squall.

“We have another system coming in on Friday. Then another Sunday,” Braun said Monday.

The Friday storm will most likely offer snow to the area.

“Right now, we are forecasting all snow,” Braun said.

That won’t be good news for people such as the Hutsons as they chart their future in Willowcreek.

Their building holds the café, store and an apartment. The business was closed at the time the roof began to give way, and no one was hurt.

Robin Hutson said the Vale Fire Department checked the building and found it was unsafe.

The apartment tenant was not able to get back in to pick up his things initially, but Robin said the tenant would be able to get his things out later.

Meanwhile, the man’s employers, Rex and Patty Maag, settled him into a house available on their farm.

Late last week, the Hutsons played host to insurance experts dispatched to assess the damage.

The business remains closed while the couple figure out their next steps. Robin hopes to continue, but she said “nothing’s confirmed.” An engineer was expected to check out the building at mid-week.

In a Facebook post, Robin noted the damage affected two-thirds of the roof and buckled walls. She said they hope to remedy the situation as soon as possible, and she worried about her employees and the community who use it as a gathering place.

“We apologize and hope everyone can just look forward to our grand re-opening,” she posted.

The Hutsons bought the business in July 2015, but it’s been a community institution for 85 years. The store opened in 1932, and additions in the 1950s and 1970s added space for the restaurant and other uses, she said.

“There was a gas station and a post office at one time,” she said.

Meanwhile, Robin had a big pot of coffee brewing at her home, about a mile away from the café. She said friends and well wishers have stopped by to give their support.

There’s not much anyone can do at this point, she said, but “everybody’s welcome.”

Lt. Rob Hunsucker, Malheur County Emergency Services Division director, said so far between 50 and 60 structures locally suffered serious or moderate damage.

“I can tell you that 30 onion sheds have collapsed,” he said.

The weight of the snow on roofs – especially flat ones – is the culprit, Hunsucker said.

“If you have a building structure with a flat roof and you have over a foot of snow on it or you have a car port, it would be wise to clean it off. The snow load is extremely heavy,” Hunsucker said.

At Country View Golf Course in Vale, owner Scott McKinney was busy last Thursday working out a plan to replace equipment ruined when a storage shed collapsed.

“I had four mowers under there,” McKinney said. Other miscellaneous equipment, such as sprayers and a SandPro rake were also stored in the shed.

“It’s pretty much a total loss on all the mowers,” he said. “Fairway and rough mowers of that size, they average anywhere from $60,000 to $80,000 apiece. A good used piece (mower) is $30,000 to $40,000 at a minimum,” he said.

In Adrian, a Quarter Circle J Seeds storage shed collapsed, owner Jerry Erstrom said.

The shed, built in 1998, housed two combines, cleaning equipment and some seed, Erstrom said.

“We are still assessing the damage,” Erstorm said.

At the Malheur County Fairgrounds, manager Lynelle Christiani is preparing for the long road back after three buildings were crushed.

The roof of the iconic Girvin Hall, dedicated in 1960, buckled and not long after that the roof of the sheep arena collapsed. When the roof of Girvin Hall fell it impacted the hog and sheep barns, Christiani said.

Christiani said insurance adjusters toured the damaged structures and the road ahead depends upon what the fair board decides. Still, two future tasks are obvious she said.

“We have got to demolish Girvin and the sheep arena,” she said.

Christiani said the damaged buildings were covered by insurance.

“We will clear the rubble and start rebuilding,” she said.

How much damage the hog barn suffered will be determined once the debris is cleared from Girvin Hall, Christiani said. She said, though, that the hog and sheep barns look to be salvageable.

“We will do what we can and the community is doing what it can to help fund some things. We will come through,” Christiani said.

Christiani said a GoFundMe page has been set up for citizens who want to help with repair costs.