ODOT snow plow on Highway 11
An Oregon Department of Transportation snow plow works on clearing Oregon Highway 11 between Pendleton to the Washington state border. (Photo by Oregon Department of Transportation)

Early Monday, wind whipped through the Columbia River Gorge as snow fell and ice formed on Interstate 84. The Oregon Department of Transportation had about 20 people working on the freeway east of Troutdale, trying to clear it up. 

Plows pushed away snow while crews applied salt, de-icer and sand.

But that wasn’t enough to clear the highway.

“Trucks and cars were spinning out on the road,” said Don Hamilton, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “Visibility was really bad. It was very slick. It was unsafe.”

The crews informed the district manager. There are 15 ODOT districts in Oregon, including two in the Portland area, and each office is responsible for its territory. 

At 3 a.m., Will Ewing, the acting manager for the district that includes the area east of Interstate 205, Mount Hood and the gorge, decided to close the freeway between Troutdale and Hood River.

Later in the morning, another district manager, Pat Cimmiyotti, manager for a district east of Hood River County, shut the freeway to The Dalles, closing the rest of a 65-mile stretch that’s used by up to 24,000 vehicles a day. 

But the situation in eastern Oregon was far worse on Monday, prompting yet another district manager to shut the freeway between Pendleton and Baker City.

District managers also closed parts of at least 10 state highways — Oregon 11, 74, 204, 245, 331, 332, 334, 339, 350 and 351 – that cover the area east of Pendleton and south to La Grande and Baker City.

By mid-afternoon, the agency had cleared I-84 and traffic was flowing again. Crews also made progress on Oregon 11, which runs between Pendleton and the Oregon border near Walla Walla, Washington. 

But by Monday evening, many other roads remained closed because of severe weather and a lack of staff.

In such weather, ODOT crews operating snow plows, graders and snow blowers work around the clock. They’re the eyes of the agency. When conditions are bad, as they were on Monday, with blizzard-like weather causing snow drifts, ice and white-out conditions, they recommend closures. 

Though district managers make the final call, they almost always trust their crew on the ground. 

“Our people know the roads,” said Angela Beers-Seydel, an ODOT spokeswoman. “Those recommendations are accepted.”

The agency has three district offices in eastern Oregon in Pendleton, La Grande and Ontario. The winter weather was so severe on Monday, with mounds of snow, roads streaked with ice and wind causing poor visibility, that even office managers hopped behind steering wheels to clear the roads, said Tom Strandberg, ODOT spokesman in eastern Oregon. 

“It’s all hands on deck,” Strandberg said.

Besides calling in conditions and recommending closures, crews in the field report to the agency’s dispatch center in Bend, where employees update the agency’s traffic website, TripCheck.com. That provides travelers with the latest information on closures, weather conditions, accidents and other conditions affecting travel.

Snow and ice often force state traffic managers to close parts of some highways in eastern Oregon during winter, but rarely do they have to shut so many roads at the same time, Strandberg said.

“We’ve got high winds, and we’ve got snow on the ground,” Strandberg said Monday. “Those high winds pick up that snow and just blow it right across the roadway and create white-out conditions in some places. And when you have white-out conditions, it’s like you’re blind.”

One snow plow got stuck on Oregon 11 between Pendleton and Walla Walla and others couldn’t get through. In white-out conditions, drivers can drive their rigs no more than about 5 miles an hour, which is not fast enough to push away the snow. Some places, like along Oregon 204 near Tollgate in Umatilla County, had 70-inch mounds of snow on Monday.

A truck on Cabbage Hill on I-84 east of Pendleton blew over on the snowy and icy road. 

The high winds even took down one of ODOT’s message boards on I-84 east of Pendleton.

ODOT issued two public warnings Monday morning, telling people to prepare for hazardous conditions and advising them to stay home.

“If you drive today in eastern Oregon, plan for long delays,” said an alert sent just before 6 a.m. “Pack extra food, water and blankets. Don’t expect emergency response crews to rescue you if you drive on closed roadways. Stay home, stay safe and don’t put others at risk.”

Some people ignored the warnings and drove around barriers closing roads, Strandberg said. Dozens of trucks and vehicles got stuck. 

On Monday afternoon, the Transportation Department said crews were trying to rescue stranded motorists on a closed section of Oregon 350 northeast of Joseph in Wallowa County where they had been stuck for hours.

It’s unclear whether there were any injuries or casualties or how many motorists got stranded. Capt. Stephanie Bigman, a spokesperson for Oregon State Police, said by email Monday evening she didn’t  have any information – though the agency posted photos on social media showing patrol cars buried at the State Police outpost in La Grande. 

Besides grappling with the severe winter weather, ODOT is also short handed.

“We’ve had a lot of people retire this last year,” Strandberg said. 

Finding people to take their places has been difficult for the agency, just as it has been for restaurants, manufacturers, delivery drivers and others.

ODOT needs about 1,100 snow drivers to staff its fleet, one for each vehicle. These people drive plows, blowers, graders and trucks, while removing snow, de-icing, sanding and salting the roads. In mid-December, it had about 110 vacancies, Beers-Seydel said.

The staffing situation has affected the agency’s ability to keep roads cleared and protect its equipment. Normally, ODOT has a driver in a truck follow the one-person snow plows to guard them from other vehicles. It’s often not able to do that now. And the lack of equipment operators means the agency has to focus on clearing select highways while keeping others closed or just plowing one lane.

“We are focused on our primary highways and our secondary roads aren’t getting the attention that they normally would get,” Beers-Seydel said. “That’s part of the reason why we remind people to stick to main roads. If the main road is in bad shape, the back roads will probably be worse.”

On Monday, ODOT crews focused in part on I-84, which it cleared while many other roads stayed closed.

The lack of staff means requiring chains more often, lowering speed limits in some areas and needing more time to respond to crashes and clear them.

The agency also focuses on clearing areas to avoid a pileup of vehicles in any one area.

“When they fill up the truck stop that we have in La Grande, they start parking on the city street,” Strandberg said. “It just creates a safety hazard.”

And when hazardous conditions strike, the agency moves equipment around the state, which on Monday included shifting snow blowers to eastern Oregon.

More storms expected in days ahead

The latest bout of severe weather hit the region in mid-December, said Marilyn Lohmann, a hydrologist and forecaster in the National Weather Service’s Pendleton office. 

“We have seen a lot of storms moving through which we hadn’t seen for a while,” Lohmann said.

In the most recent 24 hours, parts of the Cascades had up to 20 inches of snow, and up to 8 inches is expected in the Blue Mountains in the days ahead as more storms charge in.

“We will continue to see fairly active winter weather through the end of the week,” Lohmann said. “We will see a brief break early on Tuesday. … But then the next one will start spreading in from northern California by Tuesday afternoon and we will continue to see snow by Wednesday.”

A third system is expected to sweep in on Wednesday night and into Thursday, but this one could bring warmer temperatures.

“By Thursday we should see some highs in the upper 30s to mid-40s,” Lohmann said.

She said snow levels will retreat to about 5,000 feet on Thursday and that Saturday is expected to be clear.

But the area is not likely to get a respite for weeks.

“There will maybe be a little bit of a break in late January,” she said.

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