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Big storm leaves a big mess

January 25, 2012

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A car navigates around downed trees on Tucker Rd.

Problems started with a good dumping of snow last Tuesday; from a couple of feet in the upper valley to several inches down to the floor of the Gorge.

In itself, that's no big deal. This is Hood River, after all, where dealing with snow is no strange business.

Then the snow switched to fairly heavy rain for a brief period which, again, isn't anything unusual. But things turned ugly in a hurry.

Wednesday night, cold air from the east crept in and sank across the county. With warm, wet air above, the combination led to severe freezing rain, which led to several inches of solid ice on everything exposed to the sky.

"It's cliché, but it really was a perfect storm," said John Gerstenberger, Hood River Electric Co-op General Manager. "The snow soaked up all the rain, and then the ice sealed it in and cemented it to whatever it was on."

Tens of thousands of trees across the valley snapped like matchsticks. Branches snapped and shattered as the hit the ground; trees split directly in half or uprooted entirely under the weight of the snow and ice.

"In my 25 years of experience, this is the worst I've seen in terms of damage done," Gerstenberger said.

Despite what turned into to about three days of mayhem, treacherous roads and extensive damage to property, only one storm-related death in the county was reported: 54-year-old Robert Nichols died of cardiac arrest while shoveling snow (see page A6 for his death notice).

Crews continue to work overtime to clean up what the storm has left behind. The most extensive damage came to the county's power infrastructure, where hundreds of calls came in for broken power lines and poles. Initially, thousands of homes and businesses were without power. Despite the worst damage in decades, HREC and Pacific Power, with the help from a variety of crews called in from across the region, were able to restore power to almost everyone in the county within a week.

More than half of Pacific Power's customers in Hood River and Mosier - 4,600 out of 7,000 - lost power in the storm. The outage was down to 167 homes, mostly along the Dee Highway, and they were due to be back on-line by Monday night, according to Pacific Power spokesman Tom Gauntt.

"We can't even count the number of trees that are down," he said.

Much of Dee Highway remains closed to traffic except for people who live in the affected area: Odell Highway to Iowa Drive. There are literally thousands of trees down, most of them blocking the southbound lane, log after log. One stretch of road north of Iowa Drive has a row of a dozen oaks bent over, level to the ground.

Crews are felling broken trees in the area, making travel unsafe. Sheriff's deputies reported numerous drivers on Dee Highway who are not residents of the area. Anyone else who wants to get to Dee Flats needs to go to Parkdale and north on Dee Highway to Lost lake Road.

Many customers in Hood River and Mosier were without power for four days as crews labored to restore hundreds of separate outages.

Gauntt said that on Friday and Saturday in Hood River County and Mosier there were a total of 130 people working on repairs, with crews from all over the Northwest, including two helicopters doing patrols to locate downed trees and helping ground crews find access to them.

In Mosier, Pacific Power moved in a portable generator and connected it to the town's substation to get the community connected quicker.

"It was kind of like putting the water supply closer to something and fixing the pipe later," Gauntt said.

The two-megawatt generator is stored in Albany and transported on a flatbed. (The former Powerdale power facility on the Hood River generated about six megawatts when it was operational.)

Frozen rain kept falling once crews got started repairing downed trees and lines.

Gerstenberger said most of HREC's customers should have power, but there are some outlying areas that still need to be repaired.

"We encourage people who are still out of power to give us a call," he said. "With the sheer volume of calls and information we took in, a reminder of where we still have issues would be helpful."

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