Windstorm slams region

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer December 21, 2012 01:00 pm

 With visibility often down to only a few feet, traffic slows along McAlister Road near Island City as strong, gusty winds lift and carry dust and dirt across the valley Thursday. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer
With visibility often down to only a few feet, traffic slows along McAlister Road near Island City as strong, gusty winds lift and carry dust and dirt across the valley Thursday. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer

Gusts as high as 59 mph blow trucks over, close freeway, disrupt power 

Scott Edison, a trucker out of Caldwell, Idaho, sat in the cab of his semi Thursday afternoon near the Flying J truck stop, itching to be on the road again. 

By 1 p.m., he’d been sitting still over an hour, and had no idea when he’d be able to hit the road again. He kept checking his watch. His thoughts were on lost time that equates to lost money, and he sounded frustrated when he spoke. 

“It’s messed up my whole day,” said Edison, who was hauling a load to a town near Othello, Wash. “I have a 14-hour clock I can run on, and I’m not going to get unloaded today. It’s costing the truck money and me money. Unless the truck’s moving, I don’t get paid.”

Edison was among a horde of travelers stopped in their tracks by Thursday’s lengthy shutting of Interstate 84, from Ontario in the east to Pendleton in the west. High winds wrought havoc on the freeway, and the closure was sparked by two trailers and two tractor trailers blowing over on Cabbage Hill east of Pendleton.

Elsewhere in Union County, emergency crews were kept hopping by downed trees blocking roadways, downed power lines and power outages, and other complications. The wind did significant property damage, but no injuries were reported.

Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Peter Murphy said the eastbound lanes of Interstate 84 between Pendleton and La Grande were shut down about 8:15 a.m., and the westbound lanes closed shortly after 10 a.m.

Murphy said the closure of westbound lanes was extended to Baker City, and then to Ontario as the exits and interchanges became jammed with cars and trucks. ODOT finally opened the freeway to all traffic about 1:45 p.m., though the eastbound closure was lifted earlier. There were no reports of serious injuries.

Mel Marley, another trucker from Idaho, was hauling a load of cheese to Clackamas Thursday and also was stopped at the Flying J. Marley said his load weighed about 48,000 pounds, plenty to hold him on the road. He said he thought truckers running heavier should be allowed to travel through.

“A guy moving with a heavy load won’t get blown over. The light ones do, but they shut it down for everybody. They should have an officer here checking, and let the heavy ones go,” he said.

Like Edison, Marley saw money dribbling away with time.

“If I can’t get out of here, I might not get unloaded till tomorrow,” he said.

Trucks filled the Flying J lot, rows of them were parked nose-to-tail along both sides of Highway 203, and more sat idle on McAlister Lane south of the highway. Inside the truck stop, nearly all the restaurant tables were taken, and the convenience store was crowded with customers. 

Flying J General Manager Tricia Hafer said her crew was dealing well with a hectic morning.

“Both the restaurant and the c-store have been really busy,” Hafer said. “We just get together and get it done, and make sure it’s a comfortable experience for the customer. With Christmas coming up, it’s stressful for them.”

Hafer said she didn’t have to call in extra workers, though sometimes during such events she does.

With air hoses and ladders dancing in the wind, Phil Myer, left, and Russell Perry have all they can handle as they try to complete a roofing repair in Thursday morning’s high winds in south La Grande. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer
With air hoses and ladders dancing in the wind, Phil Myer, left, and Russell Perry have all they can handle as they try to complete a roofing repair in Thursday morning’s high winds in south La Grande. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer
 

The National Weather Service said sustained winds measured at the La Grande Airport about 8 a.m. touched 43 miles per hour, with gusts as high as 58. In Ladd Canyon southeast of La Grande, wind speed was measured at 47 miles per hour, with 59 mile-per-hour gusts.

Pendleton had sustained 50 mile-per-hour winds about the same time.

“Usually, the wind gets stronger as you head toward Cabbage Hill,” Meteorologist Diane Hayden said.

The weather service said that winds in the Grande Ronde Valley were diminishing late Thursday afternoon but still strong at 25 to 35 miles per hour with hearty gusts. High wind warnings were downgraded to wind advisories in effect  through 10 p.m. Thursday.

In La Grande, city crews spent a good part of Thursday cleaning up after the wind. Public Works Director Norm Paullus said his department fielded many calls about tree limbs down in the streets. 

Paullus said power outages posed some challenges.

“The wind knocked the power off outside the city core and we had people running around with generators to keep the water and sewer systems going,” he said. “Power went out at our treatment plant, but we had back-up for that.”

The wind did some damage to private property in the city, with some residents seen assessing damages to the roofs of their houses. Among incidents reported to 911, a large tree was blown over in the back yard of a residence on 11th Street, siding blew off a building and into the street in the 2200 block of Adams Avenue, and a tree fell over and blocked the roadway at I Avenue and Sixth Street.

911 dispatch received numerous calls about low hanging or downed power, telephone and cable lines. A power outage knocked out the traffic lights along Island Avenue, and also the signal at Hunter Road and Booth Lane outside Island City quit working.

 Oregon Trail Electric Co-Op spokesman Jim Horan said the high winds caused a transmission breaker to open, knocking power out for about 7,000 customers in the La Grande, Island City, Elgin and Imbler areas. The power went out about 8:45 a.m. and was restored for about 5,000 users by 9:20 a.m. It was fully restored a short time later.

In Wallowa County, meanwhile, Pacific Power and Light was dispatched to Wallowa Lake Highway Thursday afternoon in response to down power poles and trees.

The Wallowa County Road Department responded to a landslide in Troy.