Businesses face recovery as storms crush buildings

A farm rig sits inside a shop that caved in on Jantz Farms east of Vale last week. (Malheur Enterprise/John L. Braese)

By John L. Braese and Pat Caldwell

The Enterprise

As many as 100 buildings across Malheur County suffered serious damage in recent weeks because of snow loads, authorities say.

No agency yet has an exact count or what the damage has cost. In Ontario alone, Fire Chief Terry Leighton reported 30 damaged buildings.

The county’s agriculture industry has been severely hampered with several key buildings in Ontario and Nyssa crushed by snow.

Other commercial buildings have failed as well.

In Ontario, Richard Fitzsimonds left work last Thursday night confident he had attended to the threat to Ashley Homestore.

Fitzsimonds, the owner of the well-known furniture shop in downtown Ontario, took solace in the fact he put people on his roof to get the heavy snow off in the wake of several potent winter storms during the past two weeks. Roof integrity was especially pertinent last week, when a large winter squall dropped 15 inches of snow on Ontario.

“We had left work at about probably 5:30. We had crews of people up on the roof shoveling snow. So, I felt good when we left,” he said.

Fitzsimonds went home with the sense that if he had not defeated winter, he was proactive enough to avoid a worst case scenario.

Then he received a call just after 7 p.m. from the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office. The news: The roof over one of three furniture show rooms at his business collapsed.

Suddenly, Fitzsimonds joined the ranks of a great number of local people and business owners who suffered serious damage from winter’s wrath.

“There have been stories all winter long and now we are part of it,” he said.

Fitzsimonds said he was grateful that no one – including any of his 10 employees – was at the store when the roof collapsed.

Late last week Fitzsimonds was still evaluating the total damage and waiting for an insurance adjuster to arrive.

“We are closed until we get the OK from an engineer and we will probably close off the third room,” he said.

Fitzsimonds said the loss of the roof was especially poignant because he felt he performed the necessary tasks – such as shoveling – to keep it intact.

“We have been pretty vigilant. We thought we were proactive,” he said. “I guess Mother Nature had other decisions.”

Just a short way down the street, Andrews Seed Company confronted comparatively minor damage.

A grain silo, a portion of the nursery and the roof of a tin shed all collapsed, owner Mike Kurth said Friday.

Kurth said the damage did not close his business but the impact of the storm will be felt.

“It did hinder our income capabilities,” he said.

Another victim of the snow was a facility at the Kraft Heinz plant in Ontario Jan. 19.

“We can confirm that there was a partial roof collapse at dry storage facility owned by Kraft Heinz in Ontario. No employees were on the property at the time of the incident. The building is closed until further notice,” Kraft Heinz spokesman Michael Mullen said.

The Kraft Heinz plant, situated at 175 N.E. 6th Avenue in Ontario, employs 700 people.

At the Malheur County Fairgrounds, manager Lynelle Christiani said Monday the total damage from the recent winter storms could exceed $700,000.

“I think it will probably be more than that,” Christiani said.

Three major buildings, including the iconic Girvin Hall, were destroyed and several others damaged.

“We have three that are down, three that are a total bust. The hog barn is damaged. We have no idea how much damage is on the hog barn,” Christiani said.

Christiani estimated that building damage stands at $520,000 with another $250,000 in damages to the contents that were in each structure when they collapsed.

The buildings were insured, Christiani said.

“Now I have to go out and get a bid, or bids, from contractors in the community, licensed in Oregon, to know how much it will cost what we lost,” Christiani said.

Christiani said the next big step involves a town hall meeting slated for 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, at the fairgrounds. The meeting is scheduled to gather feedback from the community regarding the fairgrounds’ future as replacements are considered.

“That is for anyone who is a resident of Malheur County and would like to voice their opinion or donate. They are welcome to come,” Christiani said.

After the meeting, Christiani said, the Malheur County Fairgrounds Steering Committee will meet and discuss the feedback from the town hall. That night, the fair board will convene and ponder the suggestions from the town hall and the steering committee.

The numbers of buildings destroyed continues to mount in the agricultural sector.

“We feel fortunate no one was hurt,” said Kay Riley of Snake River Produce in Nyssa. “The shed was one of the oldest sheds on the grounds, but was in good shape.”

Snake River Produce had a semi at the loading dock of the shed, ready to load when the weight of snow sent the shed tumbling.

“There was about 9,000 50-pound bags ready to be shipped,” Riley said of the loss. “We also lost a tremendous amount of packing supplies that was stored there.”

Riley said he is shocked the magnitude of the losses incurred around the area is not more well known.

“Both here in Oregon and Idaho, we are losing millions of dollars in packing sheds collapsing,” he said.

It is not just onions that see the snow make a tangled mess of assets.

“We lost two building and two elevators,” said Dwonn Unruh, spokesman of Farmers Grain in Nyssa. “The biggest thing for us was no one was hurt.”

The business stores grain for local farmers and ships it out to buyers.

Just down the road, salvage crews were already on site scooping up a combination of onions, cement bricks and lumber that just days ago were storage facilities for Golden West Produce.