Q & A: Got questions about the aftermath of last week’s storm? Here’s what we know so far

March 4, 2019
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This map shows approximate times when transmission, substations and distribution lines will be restored to parts of Douglas County.

Monday morning, Douglas County woke to devastation wrought by a storm that brought 8 inches or more of snow down overnight. The worst of it wasn’t the storm itself, it was the way it littered county roads with fallen trees.

Many roads, even highways were blocked for days. Power was knocked out for tens of thousands of people. Some fired up the wood stoves and generators. Other shivered, trapped in homes without heat or light. Tuesday night, another 6 inches fell. But by Wednesday and Thursday, many roads were passable and many county residents had their power restored.

As of Saturday, about 8,500 county residents remained without power.

Why has it taken so long for the power to be restored?

The short answer is that the damage is extensive and many power lines are difficult to access. The power companies start by addressing the large transmission lines and then work their way down to smaller lines that lead to smaller numbers of homes. They prioritize the repairs that will bring power up for the largest number of customers as quickly as possible.

Lines that are rural and difficult to access and only serve a few customers face longer waits.

Douglas Electric Cooperative spokesman Todd Munsey said the cooperative serves a 2,200-square-mile territory, much of it heavily timbered, with a mile of line serving an average of six homes.

“We serve the most rural parts of Douglas County. We serve where other utilities do not want to. This is the reason they did not want to,” Munsey said.

He said a helicopter flyover west of Elkton Thursday revealed the cooperative has poles and lines down in areas that can only be reached by foot, Caterpillar tractor or off-road vehicle. In many places, the system will have to be not just repaired, but rebuilt.

Pacific Power spokesman Tom Gauntt said as of Friday there were still 420 places where a Pacific Power line was down, and the company must deal with each of those repairs separately.

When will power be restored to homes that are still without it?

Pacific Power anticipated having all customers’ power restored Sunday. Crews finishing work on storm-related outages in the Willamette Valley were slated to move into Douglas County Friday and over the weekend, augmenting the 250 crew members already working.

Some of Douglas Electric’s most rural customers will have to wait longer.

Electrical systems in the vicinity of Elkton, Drain, Curtin and Scottsburg could be down for another three weeks. Systems in Umpqua, Tyee and east and northeast of Oakland should be operating in two weeks. Those in Melrose, Camas Valley, Tenmile and Lookingglass could be operating in one week. Some residences in those areas may be without power even longer, while individual lines are repaired.

“My advice right now is if you have friends or relatives that you can lean on, it’s a good route to go. Because if you’re sitting by the light waiting for the power to come on any minute, it’s not going to happen,” Munsey said.

Why didn’t we know a storm was coming?

Meteorologist Charles Smith, with the National Weather Service in Medford, said the forecast was based on data that suggested the weather front would hit farther north and be warmer than it was. That would have meant snow hitting only at much higher elevations, not in the valley floor.

It’s also very unusual for Roseburg to have so much snow — so unusual, in fact, that they don’t keep snow records for our area. So it’s impossible to tell how this storm rates compared to other snowstorms the county has faced.

For comparison, if those first 8 inches had hit Medford, where they do maintain snow records, it would have been one of the top two snowstorms over the nearly 100 years they’ve been keeping records.

No one saw this storm coming, not even those trained to predict the weather.

“We definitely missed it,” Smith said.

Looking back over the past week, what went right and what went wrong?

According to everyone we’ve talked to, what went right in this situation was the people. The community came together, reaching out to help each other, as did the county government, emergency personnel, the Oregon Department of Transportation, and the power companies. Neighbors came out to help neighbors.

They rescued elderly neighbors, shared food and generators. Those who had running water offered showers to those who did not. Those who had heat offered beds to those who did not. Loggers, tree trimmers and just about anyone with a chainsaw came out to help cut up and move away the thousands of trees that fell down, blocking roadways and taking out power lines.

Munsey praised the response to the storm’s aftermath. Even those outside the area have been quick to help, with power companies helping each other and a steady stream of new poles and wires being brought into the area.

“The only thing that went wrong was the storm, and honestly storms of the century that they warn us about rarely if ever come to fruition, but the ones that they don’t tell us about, i.e. this one, kill us every time,” he said.

Gauntt said the fact that Douglas County is heavily wooded and many of its trees are Douglas firs contributed to the severity of the problems last week. Similar snowstorms in Central Oregon have less impact because there are fewer trees, and trees like ponderosa pines are less vulnerable to breakage in heavy snow. The heavy rains before the snowstorm and the short time frame when most of the snow came down also made things worse, he said.

At least, he said, people knew why the outages were occurring.

“They could look out the window and see what was happening. It wasn’t something mysterious,” he said.

And he said the way people reached out to help each other is part of what makes the Roseburg area special.

He said the company always looks at the response after a situation like this, to assess what could be done better next time, and that will happen here too.

“We’re always learning,” he said.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office issued a news release Saturday saying “road, utility, emergency and volunteer crews are continuing to clear roads, assist residents and restore services as safely and quickly as possible.”

“The response from Douglas County Commissioners, Douglas County Public Works, and Sheriff’s Office personnel early Sunday evening was swift and immediate, utilizing all available resources. Staff in all county departments as well as numerous community resources and local businesses have offered assistance during the emergency, many of which are working non-stop to provide assistance in all areas of the recovery,” it said.

Ninety percent of main county roads and all state highways were open as of Saturday. According to the Sheriff’s Office, after the storm hit, 95 percent of the transportation system was impacted by the storm over a 10-hour period. There were 1,300 miles of roads and 100,000 trees impacted. Work is ongoing, and most locations do not have flaggers, so people driving on the roads are being urged to drive slowly and cautiously.

“The removal of trees and debris from our road infrastructure is just the beginning of the recovery process. Our staff will be working on a long-term plan to repair surface damage, cracks, re-striping, guard rails and signage,” the news release said.

The emergency also created problems for medical facilities and their patients.

The Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center contacted patients to reschedule appointments, used emergency generators and issued cots to staff members in need, Interim Director Kevin Forrest said. Those things, along with proactive communication via social media went well.

“I’m really proud of how the Roseburg VA team responded to this incident,” he said.

He said the VA is conducting an After Action Review to determine what else went well and what needs to be worked on for next time. For future emergencies, he said, they want to ensure they have good contact information with physical addresses for all employees and to get an automated phone system that could contact multiple patients at once about appointment cancellations.

Did the county and state declare an emergency fast enough?

The Douglas County Board of Commissioners declared a countywide emergency Wednesday, three days after the storm began. That morning, there were an additional 6 inches on the ground from a second snowfall that began Tuesday night. On Thursday, Gov. Kate Brown declared an emergency for Douglas and ten other counties hit by severe winter weather.

The declarations are intended to make it easier for county and state to work with each other and with private contractors to address the emergency. Ultimately the county may qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency funding.

Munsey said the county and state were already working very smoothly with the power companies, so the timing doesn’t matter so much. He said the cooperative has been carefully keeping track of time and resources in case it will be able to make a FEMA claim.

How expensive will this disaster be and who will pay for it?

No one knows yet how much the efforts to clean up this disaster will cost, but Douglas Electric’s costs alone will be millions of dollars, Munsey said.

Where can county residents go for assistance?

The American Red Cross planned to open a new shelter at the Elkton High School by 6 p.m. Saturday, equipped with food, water, cots, and power for heat and charging electronics. The Elkton Gas Station is being powered by a generator. They will be open to supply gas, diesel and propane from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. beginning Sunday.

Other warming shelters are open at the Dream Center, 813 SE Lane Ave., Roseburg, and the Lookingglass Grange, 7426 Lookingglass Road, Roseburg. The Dream Center opens at 7 p.m. and the Lookingglass Grange is open 24 hours.

The Red Cross shelter at the Winston Foursquare Gospel Center has closed.