No community was spared from the intense grips of a relentless ice storm. Blasts of arctic gusts up to 20 miles per hour and an accumulation of up to 4-6 inches of ice brought cities in the Southern Willamette Valley to its knees, prompting power outages that affected thousands and suspending hospital services, transit, schools, and everyday life for several days.
The U.S. National Weather Service activated an Ice Storm Warning alert that was expected to last through Tuesday evening. Even after the storm, as the cities begin to thaw, utility crews are expecting another round of outages; the ice melt will cause a weight shift on tree limbs, causing more branches to break.
Like a snake eating its tail, since the storm hit late Friday evening, utility crews worked steadily to restore power in one area, only to find new damage outstripping and undermining their progress at every turn. Crews were challenged by the ice accumulation on downed trees and power lines, blocked roadways, and dangerous driving conditions, significantly impeding their restoration efforts.
Hospitals, like McKenzie Willamette Hospital, operated on generators. PeaceHealth closed its clinics from Springfield to Cottage Grove and reduced elective surgeries, though other hospital operations – such as the emergency departments at RiverBend and Cottage Grove Community Medical Center – were not impacted.
David House, public information officer for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said that, despite prep work done ahead of the storm, it overwhelmed most of the department’s tools — especially in the Southern Willamette Valley, which was “hit especially hard.”
“Since last week, we’ve used more salt, de-icer, and sand on that stretch of I-5 between Cottage Grove and Eugene than crews can remember for years and years and years,” House said, noting that there are about five crews dedicated to that stretch of highway alone.
He said that ODOT has gone through “hundreds of thousands of pounds” of salt and magnesium chloride on that particular stretch of I-5.
“We had 2 million pounds of salt stored in Albany, and we’ve gone through more than half of it in the last four days,” House said. He said the department also “went through about 20 sets of tire chains on our equipment going through there over and over again, and that’s an indication of just how severe, how thick the ice got.”
ODOT “has never seen anything like this before on I-5 …. We’ve had snow; we’ve had freezing rain; but we’ve never seen anything this severe in the lowlands where it’s just ice,” he said, noting a significant backup of commercial trucks that were not chained up and coming to a halt in travel lanes. “We’ve never seen a backup like that before.”
A major factor in the slowdown is vehicles not chaining up or stopping to chain up in the travel lanes, House said. The Oregon State Police increased patrols south of Eugene to enforce speed and chain laws.
Springfield Utility Board reported at least a third of its system — 11,000 customers — were left without power in nearly every section of town, from Gateway to Glenwood, as of Monday. SUB does not use Smart Meters — data from which is typically used to create power outage maps — so SUB can only estimate the number of outages based on its system’s status.
“The weight of ice on trees and infrastructure means new damage is still occurring, even as we make repairs,” SUB wrote in an update to its customers.
Conditions became too dangerous even for utility crews at SUB to work in. The utility company had to decide between leaving outages to last overnight or protecting its staff from dangerous working conditions. SUB ordered a “rest period” Saturday evening so that crews could get back to work safely the next morning. SUB also called in crews from the City of Ashland, who arrived on Monday to help in power restoration efforts.
“We are still in the active stage of the storm … we are still seeing damage. Normally that lasts for 24 hours, but we are in the 72-hour mark now of this active phase, and we still have (Tuesday) to go with a potential storm,” said Meredith Clark, community relations officer for the company. “Once that has stabilized, we can move into the steady restoration process. We will also be aided by warmer weather and melting ice.”
Springfield’s park and rec district, Willamalane, remained closed through Tuesday, and community members have reportedly been calling in hazards to the district.
“The last few days have been a blur,” said Whitney Hoshaw, the district’s public information officer. “Both of our pools lost power, our adult activities center lost power, and our park services lost power. We’ve been closing our facilities … our parks are in pretty dire need with knocked down branches. Our teams, as soon as it’s safe to do so, will be working on mitigation, but it’s going to take quite a bit of time.”
SOUTH LANE STRUGGLES
Since Saturday afternoon, the entirety of Lane Electric’s customers in Creswell (1,021) and Cottage Grove (702) were without power, in addition to all of its Dorena (415) and Pleasant Hill (125) residents. At least 41% of Cottage Grove’s power lines have since been restored, but the utility company expected residents to see outages, old and new, through mid-week.
By press time Tuesday, OR-99 between Cottage Grove and Creswell remained closed. Marcola Road was closed from milepost 19 to the county line, and Territorial Highway was closed at milepost 42 near the Douglas County line. McKenzie View Drive and Deerhorn Road also remained closed by press time.
Emerald People’s Utility District (EPUD) also services these South Lane towns, and does not have an outage map. The district did say, however, that about 100 poles in the district were reportedly broken that needed to be replaced.
By Monday evening, power in the Dale Kuni area in Creswell, much of Dexter, and Matthews Road between Pleasant Hill and Goshen were restored. EPUD officials said crews were positioned throughout the District on Tuesday, with points of focus being Marcola Road, Creswell, Cottage Grove, and Pleasant Hill.
“The hardest hit areas are Cottage Grove and Marcola, and these locations are additionally without transmission feeds,” EPUD officials said. Crews are making progress in these areas but until BPA’s transmission feed is restored, these areas will remain without power, and this could extend a week or more.”
Cottage Grove residents reportedly began experiencing power outages at 3 p.m. on Jan. 13. Gas stations shut down. Safeway was one of the only business open since the outages began. Some residents have reportedly been sleeping in their cars because trees fell through the roofs of their homes.
Temperatures were expected to rise into the 50s later this week, accompanied by a smattering of light rain.
As the Southern Willamette Valley thaws, it leaves much cleanup and restoration to be done, work officials say can last for several weeks.
Amanda Lurey and Rebecca Allen Lamptey contributed to this report.
Below: A gallery of images from the ice storm. Photos by ERIN TIERNEY-HEGGENSTALLER & BOB WILLIAMS / THE CHRONICLE