Winter storm snarls traffic in Oregon, stranding thousands

AP News
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Posted: Dec 15, 2016 12:56 AM
Winter storm snarls traffic in Oregon, stranding thousands

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A rare snow storm brought Oregon's largest city to a halt on Wednesday, with thousands of vehicles barely able to move on Portland streets and on one of its main highways.

Commuters began leaving work early, hoping to beat the storm, but they quickly found themselves on streets that were clogged with traffic that was inching along on snow-slick streets. Cars fish-tailed, spun out and collided. Semi-trucks littered Interstate 5, some of them unable to move to the side before getting stuck.

After more than three hours of waiting to travel just a few miles, some motorists abandoned their vehicles and started walking. Others hoped they wouldn't run out of gas.

Kimberly Wrolstad had been stuck on Interstate 5 heading to Tigard for about 90 minutes Wednesday afternoon. She had a quarter tank of gas left.

"It's frustrating," she said. "I don't know what's going on. I don't know if there are accidents. I know some of the trucks are having difficulties."

Some buses from Portland Public Schools were trapped in on the roads and an unspecified number of buses had been involved in crashes, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. Interim chief operating officer Courtney Wilton told the newspaper he had not heard of any injuries in those accidents.

A school bus carrying Scouters Mountain Elementary students spun out amid snowy conditions on Southeast 152nd Drive near Misty Drive in Happy Valley. Principal Kevin Spooner said all children were safe.

Portland does not use rock salt on its roads, for environmental reasons, and because snow is so rare. Portland was ready to put city buses on snow routes, and had taken other precautions, but the suddenness of the storm caught many off guard.

Portland city officials on Wednesday night declared parking meter amnesty, allowing drivers to leave their cars parked overnight without penalties. The Oregon Department of Transportation imposed a chain requirement on Interstate 5 from Albany to Portland and even some bike paths across the city's famous bridges were closed.

In Lake Oswego, a suburb south of Portland, drivers lined up to try to get up a short hill in a residential neighborhood. Many cars didn't make it, sliding slowly backward and sideways down the hill as kids played in the snow nearby. For those who did, the neighbors lined up along the street cheered.

By evening, the quiet suburban street was littered with abandoned cars parked at all angles as snow continued to fall.

Gary Flock, a safety manager at a bridge construction company, left downtown Portland at 2:30 p.m. after visiting his chiropractor and found himself putting snow chains on his pick-up truck almost six hours — and 8 miles — later. A nearby resident who had been walking his dog in the snow spotted him and came to help.

All around his neighborhood, cars were spinning out or abandoned.

"It's kind of a helpless feeling. If I had gravel or something to offer, I would," said Eric Arnold, as he wrestled the chains onto Flock's truck using headlamps.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation said about a dozen roads were closed Wednesday night due to ice, a landslide and trees that had fallen.

The Columbia River Gorge, just east of Portland, was getting hit hard. Officials reported at least five vehicle crashes along a 21-mile stretch of Interstate 84, which runs through the scenic gorge. The accidents were between the towns of Hood River and The Dalles.

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for the gorge calling for up to 8 inches of snow and gusting winds.

An avalanche plowed onto a main highway crossing the Cascade Range in Oregon, and then a second and third one occurred nearby, forcing closure of the road while snowplows cleared it, the Oregon State Police said on Twitter. There were no injuries.

On the east side of the Cascades, up to 13 inches of snow were predicted for Bend, closing schools and other facilities. Other parts of Oregon's eastern half were also expected to get a foot or so of snow.

The National Weather Service said a major ice storm was also hitting in Eugene. The City of Eugene said ice-laden trees had led to 140 calls about downed trees and power lines.

Up to 5 inches of snow were expected in the Portland area by midnight.

Schools, government offices and other facilities were closed as the storm moved in.

The winter storm crept north up the Willamette Valley, the most populous part of Oregon, before reaching Portland, first hitting Eugene and then Salem.

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Associated Press writer Andrew Selsky contributed to this report.