What Now? Cottage Grove area emerges from once-in-a-century snowstorm

Nika, a Husky belonging to Facebook user TeayRex Irving of Cottage Grove, looks at the sky over Cottage Grove Lake after the first snowfall (photo submitted by TeayRex Irving)

Snowfall in the Willamette Valley is often greeted with a certain affection. Children may get to skip some school days, families bond while creating snowmen and winter sports enthusiasts rub their hands together at a chance to make their mark on fresh slopes.

The evening of Feb. 24 likely sparked such sentiments as weather forecasts made good on their promise and the first snowflakes lazily floated to the valley’s floor. To the surprise of many, however, the snowflakes didn’t stop. And soon they weren’t falling so lazily.

By 8 p.m. that night, the first reports of power outages had begun to surface in Cottage Grove and the snow had risen to eight inches in some areas. Through the night, the storm battered the valley and, by Monday morning, the National Weather Service reported 14 inches had fallen in Cottage Grove while residents in outlying areas posted through social media snowfall closer to two feet or more.

Sporadic snowfall followed as people tried to dig their way out, but many became stuck on the slushy roads.

Finally, late afternoon Wednesday, the first sun rays began peeking through overcast gray into a snow-caked Willamette Valley. Though the clouds parted, darkness had fully set inside thousands of electricity-deprived homes in and around Cottage Grove. Many roads were still impassable, blockaded by fallen trees and barriers of snow. Fuel stations and grocery stores were understaffed and overwhelmed by throngs of customers stocking up for a wait that many expected to be long, dark and cold.

A State of Emergency

The situation was nothing short of a crisis and states of emergency were declared for both Cottage Grove and Lane County Tuesday, Feb. 26. Before long, Gov. Kate Brown issued an emergency declaration for 10 Oregon counties, including Lane, last Thursday.

The governor’s declaration provided access to additional resources and the potential for federal highway system funds in the future while directing Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to coordinate responses with the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), Oregon State Police and the Oregon National Guard to ensure cities and small communities received support as needed.

With a Lane County state of emergency declared, local spending limits were lifted and the need to go through the County Board of Commissioners for approval was removed, expediting the response process and allowing the county and its local partners to request additional state support from OEM and other partners if needed.

“It frees up resources that wouldn’t otherwise be available to us,” said Lane County Commissioner Heather Buch. “Getting those additional resources is critical because people are not as available to help when they’re stuck in their own locations. We have several other folks from different counties in our office helping with us.”

Lane County’s own OEM staff of five swelled to about 15 or 20, Buch said.

The accelerated access to funding is also expected to come with possible reimbursement.

“When smaller cities are expending large amounts of money to get services out to their communities to put things back together, that’s very expensive and our small cities have a really hard time being able to afford those kinds of services,” said Buch

The county can now document those expenses and later request some reimbursement of those funds from FEMA and state sources.

Distributed resources around the county included fuel, food, water, medicine, baby formula and American Red Cross assets.

“Just those critical essentials that everyone needs to get by,” said Buch. “Stability for me means they have electricity and all their basic needs met. Not everybody has that yet.”

As for Cottage Grove, the declaration didn’t entitle the city to any aid — distribution is at the discretion of the county or state — though it does open the door for the city to tap into any of the aforementioned resources.

“The emergency declaration can also be very valuable if FEMA steps in,” said Public Works and Development Director Faye Stewart said.

Years ago, an ice storm qualified Lane County for emergency aid funding. “I think we got close to 80 percent of our expenses from that storm reimbursed,” Stewart said.

All clean up and spending must be done during the window that the state of emergency is declared and reimbursements in the form of state or federal funding may come later, though it is not clear how much can be reimbursed.

“So, it was best for us to take the action and be in position to be able to take advantage if it happens,” said Stewart.

The city’s state of emergency is expected to last at least a month or two as extensive coordination efforts are needed to respond to damage caused by the storm.

“We will probably keep this declaration of emergency active for awhile because there’s lots of clean-up that needs to be done,” said City Manager Richard Meyers.

Cottage Grove and its surrounding communities still need plenty of attention. Though power has largely been restored to the city proper, downed trees and debris litter public and private property. And many roads, if cleared, are bookended by large snow banks.

Damage to local buildings included a four-foot hole punctured the Coiner Park bathroom roof, fallen awnings on Main Street and a collapsed CenturyLink utility shed. Several shed collapses on private property were also reported on social media.

Four of the city’s wastewater pumps also stopped working, the circuitry of one frying from a power surge.

In response to the carnage, emergency services became inundated with calls and incidents.

“We definitely saw a spike in electrical emergencies, unintentional fire alarm activation, public assists and structure fires during the week of the storm,” said South Lane County Fire and Rescue (SLCFR) Division Chief Joe Raade. “All three structure fires were related to the storm, and one produced a serious burn patient.”

From Monday to Thursday the week of the storm, calls totaled at 44 welfare checks, 60 fire or medical and 10 burglary alarm responses. In all, 328 emergency and 875 non-emergency calls came in, bloating the phone lines to two or three times the normal amount.

Cottage Grove Police Chief Scott Shepherd was pleased with the response of his officers to the deluge of calls and praised the resourcefulness of the community at-large, but said he is looking to lessons learned from the event.

“I think we can always be better prepared,” he said.

Power companies, too, scrambled to respond to a high volume of inquiries and outage reports. By Monday morning, Cottage Grove was completely without power save for those with generators. The city’s main electricity provider, Pacific Power, reported more than 3,300 Cottage Grove customers affected by the power outages and 44,000 throughout its coverage area, though the company’s power was fully restored by the end of the week.

Unfortunately, for many residents, not everyone is on the same power grid.

“Anything that’s annexed after 1976 is in EPUD’s district,” said Meyers.

The Emerald People’s Utility District (EPUD) covers parts of Cottage Grove, mostly in the southern, western and eastern ends of the city and extends out several rural roads. Responding to the rural chaos presented a challenge.

EPUD General Manager Scott Coe described a perfect storm as the reason for all the destruction.

“We had two days of heavy rain that absolutely saturated the soil,” he said. “And then you put the heavy snow on top of the trees and the roots just gave up.”

Those trees were the primary cause of all power outages. “There’s an area by Cottage Grove Reservoir I counted for four miles,” Coe said. “Every span had a tree or more through it and it’s all trees that lost their root system because of soft soil and heavy snow.”

Half of the company’s substations lost their feeds due to the storm.

“To have five of our 10 substations down by Monday was unprecedented,” Coe said.

Though thousands of customers initially lost electricity, as of press time only about 300 EPUD customers remained without power.

In other rural areas, Lane Electric crews had by Wednesday restored power to approximately 2,000 of the 10,130 households that had been without power. Nearly a week later, 2,400 were still lacking service. Damage to the Dorena area was deemed “significant,” and residents have been told to expect several more days without power. Though the company expected power to be restored to a majority of service areas by March 7, other areas may be without power into the weekend.

Without power, fuel supply to Cottage Grove was drastically limited. Most gas stations were forced to close or, if they did open, were significantly understaffed as their workers were unable to get in.

Pat Pannu, a manager of the Chevron stations in Cottage Grove, helped keep the business open through the event, opening business at 10:30 a.m. Monday and regaining electricity for pumping by 11:30.

“I think we were the only place within 20 miles that had power and had gas,” Pannu said. Though fuel ran out four times, the stations continued service.

“I kept it open, but barely,” said Pannu. “People have been pretty awesome, honestly, because it’s been long waits.”

Being one of the few fuel resources in town, a staff of 11 workers at the Gateway station and five by the Village Green station worked tirelessly to move customers through.

“I think we honestly handled it pretty well,” Pannu said. “My employees have been rock stars.”

Outside city limits, rural residents were heavily impacted by the storm. Roads to outlying areas were crisscrossed with fallen trees and buried in up to two feet of snow. Hundreds of trees were reported downed in rural, forested areas, many tangled up power lines.

In addition to the dismal prospect on power restoration, water became an issue for Dorena residents. Many residents reported melting snow to flush sewage and wash.

Though power has been out in Dorena, landlines were still operable and residents found that, although they could not make outside contact, residents could communicate amongst themselves. This stroke of fortune provided a safety net of communal support as neighbors pooled resources and performed welfare checks.

Meanwhile, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office notified the water customers of Drain to ration water usage on Friday as power outages and pump issues affected the water system. Residents were urged to purchase drinking water at local stores. By Monday, the ration order had been lifted.

On Friday, Sheriff John Hanlin and Commissioner Chris Boice, both of Douglas County, visited the community of Elkton. In a joint press release, Douglas County reported that the power infrastructure which supports Elkton and the surrounding area sustained heavy damage and estimated that it would take several weeks to repair.

The county’s Emergency Management Division, Sheriff’s Office, county commissioners and American Red Cross have been working to deploy resources to assist the community.

In Cottage Grove, as the storm settled and damage was being assessed, a new a problem emerged. With the city still blanketed in snow, concerns mounted that rapid melting could cause flooding. In response, sand bags have been made available to the public as a precaution.

“I don’t think we’re going to see, unless it really does turn to 70 (degrees) and rain, massive amounts of floods, but it is going to be localized,” said Meyers on Friday. “Some of our stormwaters aren’t going to be able to get into the river because the river’s high. We may see some backing up in streets.”

Most likely, residents on hillsides may see water coming through their property in the coming weeks. These areas are urged to redirect it to roads.

“The worst-case scenario is that one week or two weeks from now we get some sort of a warm blast of rain and we step out of this into some flood issues,” Stewart said.

Either way, Mayor Jeff Gowing recommended that people prepare for the possibility of warm rain in March. “Because if it doesn’t happen, alright. We’re out of it. But if you don’t prepare for it and it does happen, you’re screwed,” he said.

“All the ingredients are here for another disaster to follow,” Stewart said.

Lessons Learned

City officials have been pleased with public and private responses to the emergency so far.

“I’d like to say good job to the city staff who have been working through this,” said Gowing. “For those of us who’ve been here since ’69, I haven’t seen anything worse until this one. It’s not as bad as that one, but pretty close.”

“From the Public Works side, I’ve got to tell you, our crews have done an excellent job,” Stewart said.

Keeping core infrastructure running with limited resources and damaged equipment was a challenge to the department, yet drinking water and sewage continued to flow as road-clearing units were deployed to clear city streets.

“When folks weren’t delivering fuel, keeping generators running or pumping, they were in one of those pieces of equipment opening up roads,” Stewart said. “I believe we addressed and assisted the fire department in every request that they had to get to an emergency response.”

Welfare checks and other law enforcement responses were also assisted by the department.

“I have to tell you, I think we did a really great job,” Stewart said.

Like all things, however, there is room for improvement. Stewart noted that communication between the city and county as well as communication with key power companies could improve. Even so, Stewart praised the city’s use of social media to keep the public informed.

“We’ve tried within our ability short of knocking on everybody’s door to get the message out,” he said.

City Engineer Ryan Sisson was equally pleased with city workers.

“There are two types of workers I respect in the response to the emergency,” he said. “One is the workers pushing the snow out of the way and keeping the pump stations going, but second it’s dispatch and Public Works and call takers. They have just been hearing all the heartbreaking stories and their abilities are so fantastic.”

SLCFR also gave itself a high grade in response to the disaster.

“The fire district was able to weather the storm well and is definitely prepared for the next time this occurs,” said Raade. “Hopefully some of the community members impacted by the storm have gained some new insights also on how to be better prepared for future weather and disaster events.” Raade’s point on readiness is one echoed by many in light of the impact from a foot or two of snow.

“It should be an eye-opener for when Cascadia hits,” Gowing said.

City Councilor Kenneth Michael Roberts also commented on this during a session reaffirming the city’s declaration of a state of emergency.

“As far emergency preparedness, I think the people of this town, as much as we’ve thrown something every year about it, I think a lot of people don’t take that seriously enough — having water, food, cash on hand,” he said. “A lot of the stores could not take food stamps cards, it was cash only. So hopefully our community will learn even more with this incident, is what I’m hoping.”

In addition to emergency management information on the city’s webpage, annual events are held to raise awareness.

“Every year for at least the last four years, the city has hosted or had an emergency preparedness fair,” said Stewart.

The fair is partnered with the Party in the Park event and particular interest in this summer’s event in expected to be high.

“So, it’ll be big this year,” said Meyers.

A vision of potential destruction from the anticipated Cascadian earthquake also weighed on the EPUD general manager’s mind.

“It would be like this but then with no highways in some locations on top of it,” Coe said. “This is the dry run for Cascadia.”

County Commissioner Buch, too, hoped to see greater emergency preparedness grow from this event.

“This is a great learning lesson for not only the county but all communities throughout the affected areas,” said Commissioner Buch. “To go back to the table and say, ‘This is where we did great. This is where we need improvement and let’s move through those steps because this could be much, much worse in the future and we need to be ready.”

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