Oregon Ice Storm Subsiding, but Many Still in the Dark

A major ice storm knocked out electricity for more than 730,000 homes in Oregon — some for nearly a week.

A resident poses by a large ice-covered tree on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021, in Portland, Ore., after a weekend winter storm toppled it. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — The frigid weather wreaking havoc in Texas also caused cold chaos in the Pacific Northwest, where a historic ice storm knocked out substations, leaving hundreds of thousands of homes unheated and with fridges of ruined food.

Frigid cold, pushed south from an unusual warming event over the arctic, arrived in Oregon last week, dumping snow and ice from Portland south through the normally temperate Willamette Valley to Salem and Eugene.

Portland reliably shuts down even in minor snowstorms, with resulting runs on groceries leaving nary a kale leaf on the shelf. But this was different.

A sudden warming of the upper atmosphere above the arctic sent frigid weather spilling south over North America and Europe, according to researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The worst winter storm in the Willamette Valley in 40 years hit on Friday and dropped over a foot of snow in some areas. Then came the freezing rain. On Sunday, the world seemed coated in an inch of ice. 

By Monday morning, temperatures had risen above freezing. The steady crackle of ice falling from trees, roofs and the power lines still standing was as constant as a heavy rain. Major roads crisscrossing Portland were passable. But most drivers couldn’t get their cars to those roads.

On Tuesday, the city still had almost 50 road closures from downed trees and electrical lines. Numerous families had a fridge full of spoiled food. Fred Meyer, a grocery chain owned by Kroger that had experienced its own power outage, filled a dumpster with perishable food. Word of the damaged bounty spread on social media. But when people tried to take it, store employees called Portland police, who responded with nearly a dozen officers to guard the dumpster.

“The food was unfit for consumption or donation,” a spokesperson for the Portland Police Bureau said in a statement. “Officers also tried to explain this to the group of people. No subject in the crowd was willing to have an open dialogue with the officers and continued to shout insults at them and store employees.”

The ice caused major damage to the regional electrical system, knocking out dozens of the high-power transmission lines that feed substations. On Saturday, the night sky was filled with the mechanical lightning from substations and power lines going down. Twenty substations and hundreds of the power lines that feed individual homes had to be repaired.

Over 730,000 homes in the Willamette Valley lost power — some for hours, many for days. Six days after the storm hit, about 110,000 were still without it. 

Holly Safranski, a 47-year-old teacher, was without power for two days. Safranski said her experience wasn’t too bad, all things considered, because home was stocked with candles, ready-made food and wood for the fireplace.

“We played board games and read books,” Safranski said. “I didn’t mind it. My daughter was miserable.”

School was cancelled on Tuesday, but Safranski was able to teach remotely when classes reopened on Wednesday. She said some of her students still don’t have power and can’t attend their online classes.

Safranski lost everything in her fridge but saved the contents of the freezer by burying it in a cooler in the snow in her backyard. Her above ground swimming pool was frozen so solid she could walk on it. And the sound of her neighbor’s enormous, ice-clad Douglas Firs dropping one branch after another kept her up on Sunday night.

“All night long after the ice hit, limbs were hitting the pool,” Safranski said. “It sounded like when glaciers crack, it was so scary.”

Some people stranded by snow and ice in homes without heat tried to escape to area hotels that still had power, only to find rates suddenly skyrocketing.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown declared an abnormal market disruption based on “reports of unusual increases in lodging rates.” The order allows the state attorney general to investigate such incidents.

“During a time when so many Oregonians have been without power for days, it is absolutely unacceptable to price gouge those who are seeking a warm, safe place to stay until power is back on in their homes,” Brown said.

Maria Pope, president and CEO for Portland General Electric, said Thursday the utility was still discovering dozens more toppled utility poles.

“Transmission lines came down at unprecedented rates during this storm, and that is what is making recovery so complex,” Pope said.

Pope said crews focused first on water treatment facilities, sewer systems and hospitals. The company hoped to restore power to 90% of its customers by Friday — one week after the storm hit.

Quintin Gaddis, PGE’s senior manager of substation operations, said crews were working around the clock to restore power.

“Since Feb. 11, we’ve had all hands on deck,” Gaddis said.

But with power outages nearing a week for some people, Dale Goodman, PGE’s director of utility operations, warned people against taking matters into their own hands.

“We’ve had reports of some of the public touching downed wires out of frustration or impatience,” Goodman said Thursday. “We understand that folks are frustrated and want these lines out of the way, but do not touch these.”

Emergency shelters housed 450 of Portland’s estimated 2,000 people without a permanent roof over their head, in a joint effort by the city and Multnomah County that also distributed thousands of pieces of warm clothing and hundreds of blankets. That number — 2,000 people — includes those living in cars, in tents on the street and in abandoned buildings.

The Covid-19 pandemic complicated operations, with the need for social distancing reducing the number of emergency beds that could be made available and increasing people’s reluctance to leave the spaces they have managed to carve out for themselves on the street.

“We didn’t promise a no-turn away shelter this year. Luckily we didn’t get to that point,” said Denis Theriault, spokesman for the Joint Office of Homeless Services. “I’ll be glad when we no longer have to balance the possibility of spreading Covid with the threat of dying from exposure.”

No deaths from exposure have been reported, but that information could take weeks to surface because the county Medical Examiner’s Office must first rule out other causes of death.

On Sunday night, a driver lost control of his Subaru on the icy, two-mile Glenn Jackson Bridge, which connects Oregon and Washington via Interstate 205. Swallowed by the cold, dark waters of the Columbia River, it took the Multnomah County Dive Team three days to locate the vehicle. 

Still trapped inside was the body of 57-year-old Antonio Amaro-Lopez. They only knew to look because another motorist reported a car disappearing after it slid off the edge of the highway bridge. 

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