Deadly Winter Blast in Oregon Leaves 150,000+ in the Dark

Captured off Highway 101 in Lincoln City, Jan 14, 2024

The U.S. is facing a severe winter storm, affecting various regions with extreme cold, snow, and wind. From icy conditions in Oregon leading to deaths and power outages, to blizzard warnings in the northern Plains and high wind warnings in New Mexico, the weather is disrupting normal life. The storm has caused widespread power outages, road closures, and emergency declarations across several states. Governors in multiple states have warned residents to prepare for hazardous conditions. The storm has also impacted major events, with some NFL playoff games postponed and campaign events canceled. This widespread winter weather is unusual in its severity and reach across the country.

The recent extreme weather in northwest Oregon has unleashed a cascade of crises, plunging over 150,000 homes and businesses into darkness amid power outages and rendering mountain roads impassable. This brutal weather front has not only wreaked havoc on infrastructure but has also led to at least two confirmed deaths, casting a shadow over the state during the holiday weekend.

The grip of the storm has left Salem and other cities encased in ice, with authorities urging the public to remain indoors. Despite the expected departure of the storm from certain areas by early Sunday, the National Weather Service has forecasted a continuation of dry, bone-chilling air through the early part of the week. Temperatures are predicted to hover around the high 20s, ensuring that the ice blanketing the roads remains a persistent threat.

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Highway 101 / Photo by Ortiz L Pedro

The aftermath of the storm has been marked by a litany of road closures due to treacherous conditions, leading to numerous accidents over the weekend. The Oregon Department of Transportation reported that many of these incidents were due to excessive speed and inadequate preparation for winter driving, such as the lack of chains on tires. Salem's Public Works department has been proactive, sanding down major routes and emergency accesses, though neighborhood streets remain untreated.

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oregon blizzard
According to the National Weather Service, snow is forecast to impact Oregon mountain passes (Photo by ODOT)

The calamity claimed the lives of three individuals. One death, currently under investigation for suspected hypothermia, occurred in Portland. The Multnomah County Medical Examiner's office noted that it might take weeks or months to officially confirm the cause. In a separate incident, a woman in her early 30s died when a tree struck an RV she was in, leading to a fire. The investigation determined those inside the RV were using an open flame stove to keep warm. Compounding these tragedies, high winds in Lake Oswego caused a tree to collapse onto a house, tragically taking the life of an elderly man inside.

tree down portland
Fallen trees block Barbur Boulevard and Naito in Portland, photographed on Saturday. (Image by ODOT / Flickr)

The storm's force was most notably seen in the Columbia River Gorge, where winds exceeded 80 miles per hour, and in Portland, with gusts surpassing 50 miles per hour. This extreme weather led to the sad demise of a Portland woman in her early 30s, who perished when a tree fell onto the RV she was occupying. This incident highlighted the additional dangers posed by downed electrical wires and inoperative fire hydrants, complicating emergency responses. I-84 eastbound between Ontario and La Grande was shut down by the Oregon Department of Transportation after numerous collisions on Friday evening. The National Weather Service has also forecasted additional snowfall and strong winds through the weekend.

Multnomah County is in the midst of a cold-weather state of emergency, with the Medical Examiner's office investigating a suspected hypothermia death. Confirmation of the cause, however, may take an extended period. Amid the chaos, emergency decrees have been declared in several counties, with the focus on recovery efforts to restore electricity and clear the debris-littered roads.

In light of the storm's severity, several Oregon counties have proclaimed state of emergency decrees. The authorities advised residents to remain indoors on Sunday as efforts to restore power and clear roads continued. The First Christian Church in downtown Portland, a haven providing warm shelter, was forced to shut down due to a pipe burst, exemplifying the storm's crippling effect on community resources. Affected individuals had to be transported to alternate locations for safety and warmth.

Oregon State University's Corvallis campus shut down completely, including all on-campus facilities like the Memorial Union and Student Experience Center. Despite the closure, the university's dining services continued to operate, albeit with potential adjustments to accommodate staffing during the inclement weather.

Chemeketa Community College also announced the closure of all its campuses and outreach centers, canceling in-person and remote classes, activities, work, and events. The Salem-Keizer area's transit service, Cherriots, ceased bus service on Sunday due to unsafe road conditions, with plans to resume on Monday at a reduced holiday level. Trimet, the largest transit agency in the Portland metro area, suspending all rail services. The mountainous regions have not been spared, with key ski areas like Hoodoo Ski Area and Timberline Lodge ceasing operations due to the hazardous conditions.

As the state braces for the possibility of freezing rain and sleet in the coming days, residents are advised to stay updated on road conditions and power outages. The cold spell is set to continue, and Oregonians are called upon to exercise caution and patience as the state recovers from this formidable winter storm's impact. Road closures due to ice and debris, such as on U.S. Highway 20 and Highway 229, have created significant barriers, compounding the dangerous conditions already present across the state.

The National Weather Service reported wind speeds surpassing 80 mph in the Columbia River Gorge and over 50 mph in Portland. Although winter storm and blizzard warnings were lifted by Saturday night, Coos County faced a flood warning until late Sunday, and a hazardous seas warning was in place along the Oregon and Southwest Washington coastlines.

In Portland, temperatures are expected to remain below 27 degrees during Sunday and Monday, with nighttime temperatures staying in the mid-teens. Consequently, the existing snow and ice will likely persist until at least Tuesday, as the low temperatures prevent any significant melting. The National Weather Service indicates that Portland and Bend might see total snow accumulations of around 4-5 inches.

Furthermore, the combination of freezing rain, sleet, and snow is creating hazardous conditions for road crews and causing numerous downed trees and power outages. The Willamette Valley from Salem to Eugene is already facing some of the iciest conditions. With such extreme weather, the restoration of power and normal traffic flow might be delayed, and residents are advised to take caution.

Driving in extreme weather with icy roads requires heightened caution and preparedness. First and foremost, it's crucial to ensure your vehicle is well-maintained and equipped for winter conditions. This includes having good quality winter tires, a full tank of gas, and an emergency kit with essentials like blankets, food, water, and a flashlight. When on the road, reduce your speed and increase your following distance, as stopping distances can be up to ten times longer on ice and snow. Be particularly cautious on bridges, overpasses, and shaded areas where ice is more likely to form.

If you find yourself skidding, remember to steer gently into the skid and avoid slamming on the brakes, as this can make the situation worse. Keep your lights on to increase visibility, even during the day. If conditions become too dangerous, don't hesitate to pull over in a safe location until visibility improves or the road becomes safer. It's always better to arrive late than not at all. For those in Oregon needing to travel, it's advised to check current road conditions and weather forecasts on before setting out. This resource can provide up-to-date information on road closures, traffic incidents, and weather-related advisories, helping you make informed decisions about your travel during extreme weather conditions.