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Worst ice storm in years grips county

January 21, 2012

Ominous sounds echo across the county.

Trees coated in solid ice snap like bones, studded tires slide across roadways, chain saws work feverously to amputate shattered branches, police, fire and ambulance sirens shriek into the night … Like sound effects from a scary movie - and the visuals to match - snow, sleet and several inches of freezing rain over the last few days have created some of the most destructive conditions Hood River County has seen in decades.

Snow-covered trees and branches layered with several inches of ice have wreaked havoc on roads and power lines since Wednesday, when cold air from the east mixed with warm, wet air from the west.

Several hundred residents have been without power since then, and as conditions worsened Thursday and into Friday, so many calls went out for downed power poles and lines that the small army of personnel from city, state and county police, power companies, tree companies, tow companies, firefighters and volunteers, city and county public works and ODOT, to name a few, was completely overwhelmed.

"This is by far the worst catastrophic situation I've seen in terms of the number of facilities we've had down," said Chris Walker, who has been with Hood River Electric Co-op for 15 years.

On Thursday, dispatcher Tiffany Peterson said that in her 13 years with 9-1-1 she has never seen a day with more downed trees and power lines.

"We could hardly catch our breath," she said. With so many calls so close together, the challenge was keeping track of everything and everyone while continuing to take more and more calls. "It was, our friend, multi-tasking," she said.

At one point, three deputies responding to downed trees in Odell were trapped by downed trees and power lines.

"We're in a bad spot," Deputy Matt English radioed to Peterson. "We've got all sorts of trees about to come down all around us."

With all personnel tied up on other calls, Peterson did something unusual. Her home is nearby on Wy'east, and her husband, Jason, was in the area helping neighbors with similar problems.

"My husband is en route with a chain saw," she told deputies.

"They found themselves in a very scary situation," Peterson said. "It's not something we typically do, but in an emergency you do what you have to do."

Widespread and significant damage to powerlines and poles means crews will be on overtime to make repairs and restore power to those who have lost service.

"We've got about 2,000 customers without power right now," said Pacific Power spokesman Tom Gauntt. He said the worst of the damage, and the loss of service, is in the upper valley. In several cases, downed trees and branches not only broke lines, they snapped entire power poles, which take significantly more time to repair.

"Crews have been working hard to get power restored, but so far the repairs have not been linear. As soon as they get one thing fixed, something breaks somewhere else. We're sending extra crews in to make repairs as quickly as possible, but they have to be able to get there first, and once they do, it's going to take a bit longer with all the ice on everything.

"We have crews from Astoria, Portland, Pendleton, Bend, Albany at work in the county already as well as specially contracted tree crews. More crews and equipment are on their way from the Willamette Valley, Roseburg and Coos Bay. We should have about 60 employees and contractors at work by Friday afternoon."

Walker said outages for HREC's are "widespread," with several hundred customers without power.

"We expect some of those customers will be without power for days," Walker said."We've got so many poles busted, and we get one fixed and another one comes down."

He said crews have responded to an estimated 200 incidents, including outages affecting isolated homes. HREC is getting help from three other utilities, and a fourth was expected Friday morning.

Two-man crews in bucket trucks have been working around the clock, according to Walker.

"After 40 hours, we have to give them five or six hours sleep," he said.

On Friday morning, the National Weather Service issued another freezing rain advisory for the Hood River Valley and the western Columbia River Gorge. The advisory runs through Saturday and warns of continued freezing rain, hazardous winter weather and dangerous driving conditions.

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