Bill Ledbetter lost track of how many trips he had made to pick up sandbags.
The Pendleton man was one of many McKay Creek area residents scrambling to protect his home from rising waters Saturday as the creek crested its banks, filling Community Park, backyards and city streets with muddy waters.
Ledbetter said his side of the street was OK, but several neighbors on the opposite side of the street evacuated their homes the day before.
“They have water up to here,” he said, gesturing at calf-level. “They’re talking about this until Thursday. They screwed up by not regulating it out sooner.”
The city of Pendleton did not issue an evacuation order, and flood waters are receding, but locals are not out of the deep yet. The city council Tuesday night is voting to declare an emergency due to the worst flooding in years. The city council of Umatilla plans to declare an emergency as well Tuesday night following its budget workshop. The Umatilla County Board of Commissioners made the declaration last week.
The discharge from McKay Reservoir into the creek peaked Saturday, topping 2,800 cubic feet per second, according to city sources. The Bureau of Reclamation operates the reservoir and its dam south of Pendleton. Bureau spokesperson Michael Coffey said McKay can hold 73,800 acre-feet of water and Saturday at about 7:30 p.m. was almost 95 percent full.
The flood forced the assisted living facility Willowbrook Terrace to evacuate its 35 residents to a sister facility, Elizabethan Manor.
Willowbrook’s back property rests on the banks of McKay Creek. The fast-rising water flooded the facility’s basement, overwhelmed the pumps and backed up the sewer. Willowbrook director Corey Crismon said the center followed its evacuation plan. All available staff came in and the Pendleton Fire Department handled coordination. Local bus companies and others volunteered to transport the residents. He praised the community action.
Crismon said this was the first flood he has dealt with. Crismon said staff placed sandbags around the bottom of buildings, but the muddy water covered all of those. Willowbrook has emergency generators and a second floor, but Crismon said relocating the residents to another site was the safer action.
Pacific Power spokesman Drew Hanson said five customers were without power in the McKay area. That situation could last several days.
Hanson said the ground-mount transformer that helps supply customers with electricity is inundated with water, and crews can’t make repairs until the flooding recedes. He added Pacific Power is in regular contact with Umatilla County dispatch to determine any power issues.
Hanson urged residents to stay away from downed power lines and to report loss of power by phone at 1-877-508-5088 or by texting OUT 722797.
While residents toiled to keep the water at bay, volunteers were busy up the street, filling sandbags and delivering them to McKay Creek residents.
Some of them started the work on Friday, when city workers and community volunteers shoveled gravel into sandbags at McKay Park on Southwest 44th Street.
and residents arrived to haul them up by the pickup-load.
Saturday more volunteers showed up. About 100 worked together that evening to fill bags with gravel the city started storing on site.
“On the opposite side of the street, 4-foot fences are underwater,” said Star Powell, a resident of 41st Street, one of the worst-affected areas.
Ledbetter said as long as they were able to keep the water flowing in the street, most of the homes should be fine. Still, they stacked up dozens of sandbags along the driveway and stockpiled more by the garage.
“Most people don’t have flood insurance — we’re not in the floodplain,” he said.
But Ledbetter said he was pleased to see so many people helping out.
“There’s a lot of people I’ve never seen before down here helping,” he said. “There’s a couple hundred up there (in the gravel area), little kids filling bags.”
Officials from the city and Umatilla County worked together on handling the flood. The effort got a boost Sunday when one of the three incident management teams with the Office of State Fire Marshal arrived.
Lt. Sterrin Holcomb with the sheriff’s office explained the state team is helping coordinate responses to public safety and health concerns, such as sewers backing up or private wells filling with flood water. They also look ahead, she said, and help plan for recovery. That can range from deciding what roads to open first to letting locals know what to do with all the sandbags.
The incident command viewed the city of Pendleton’s drone footage of the flooding, she said, and used GPS to look for damage to homes as they begin to access recovery needs.
Local officials also called in Team Rubicon, a veteran-led disaster response organization, to give a hand. The volunteers will begin canvassing neighborhoods and helping assess damage in the area beginning Tuesday. Rubicon volunteers will wear a gray T-shirt displaying “Team Rubicon.” Holcolm said the command team plans to release information about damage at a later point.
“We don’t want people cleaning up before water levels are down,” she said.
The discharge from the dam eased off starting Sunday, and the bureau continued to decrease the flow Monday to 2,000 cfs. The incident command team reported water managers will monitor the weather through the night, and may reduce releases further Tuesday morning, depending on reservoir levels.
City crews dug a precautionary water diversion trench Monday morning around the privately owned bridge at Pendleton’s wastewater treatment plant. The city also continues to close Struve Bridge off Kirk Extension. Public works is monitoring the situation there.
And Umatilla County invited the public to a community meeting Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Sherwood Heights Elementary School, 3235 Southwest Nye Ave., Pendleton, where all the agencies involved in the recent local floods will be present to provide background information and to answer questions.
To view the city of Pendleton’s drone footage of the flooding on McKay Creek, visit https://pendleton.or.us/article/mckay-creek-flooding-2019.