PILOT ROCK — Ray Arriola stood in the muddy middle of Main Street in Pilot Rock and watched water sluicing over a parking lot that sits between rushing East Birch Creek and a second hand store called “Jer and Ter’s.”
He gestured toward a twisted length of metal safety fence at creekside that rushing water had flung aside like nothing during Wednesday’s flooding of downtown Pilot Rock.
“The power of water is amazing,” he said shaking his head, “but I think we’re over the hump now.”
Arriola lives on the other side of the creek. A row of sandbags did its job, keeping water out of his home.
Residents still are a bit shellshocked at how quickly the creek overflowed its banks and flooded Highway 395 where the road curls through the downtown core. Water had receded somewhat by Thursday morning, but the Pilot Rock Market parking lot was still a lake. The highway remained closed to through traffic.
At nearby Coffee Station No. 1, patrons sipped the local brew and exchanged information about where the creek is jammed up and whose basements are flooded. At City Hall, Pilot Rock Police Chief Bill Caldera was up almost 30 hours straight. He and his officers had knocked on doors to warn homeowners of rising water and helped wherever they were needed. He marveled at the esprit de corp of the city’s residents who flocked to two sandbagging stations at opposite ends of town. Caldera said the Red Cross took three evacuated families and put them up at Pendleton hotels.
The damage is still coming to light. Umatilla County Commissioner John Shafer said county road crews were out Thursday attempting to assess and work on the most impacted areas, though Pilot Rock appeared to have suffered the worst of the floods. There’s been no confirmed reports of bridges that have been washed out, but Shafer said the approach to one on West Birch Creek Road in Pilot Rock was impassable and some residents are currently unable to reach their homes in the area.
“Our road crews can’t get out there to work on it until the waters recede,” he said.
Wednesday’s and Thursday’s flooding was the result of excessive rainfall throughout the region in recent days. The rainfall reached record levels for the Pendleton area Wednesday. According to the National Weather Service in Pendleton, the area received 1.11 inches of rain Wednesday, shattering the previous record for May 20 that was set in 1894 at 0.79 inches.
The recent rainfall led to rising levels in rivers throughout the region and surrounding streams, including the Umatilla, Walla Walla, John Day, Grande Ronde and Imnaha rivers.
The National Weather Service in Pendleton extended minor flood warnings until Thursday afternoon for the Gibbon area on the Umatilla Indian Reservation and along the Umatilla River, which was recorded above flood stage at 7.4 feet at 4:15 a.m. Thursday by the Northwest River Forecast Center.
The river levels were expected to decrease throughout the day, and were recorded below flood stage by the forecast center at 6.7 feet as of 11:15 a.m.
Though it feels a bit like groundhog day after historic flooding ravaged the county in February, Shafer said initial reports indicate that county infrastructure damages won’t come close to the $25 million dealt by floodwaters months ago.
“The peak is over and we’re starting to see the end of it,” he said.
“I think we’ll be all right as long as it stops raining.”