Hermiston residents trying to get home from the Tri-Cities had a harrowing experience on Saturday after white-out conditions and a multi-vehicle pile-up stranded hundreds of drivers on Interstate 82.
Mackenzie Colgan left work at about 2:45 p.m. and didn’t get home until 11:30 p.m.
“Longest trip home from the Tri-Cities ever,” she said. “It was terrifying.”
Washington State Department of Transportation closed Interstate 82 at about 2:30 p.m., but Colgan said there were no signs up to warn her when she got on the freeway in Kennewick and started following a semitrailer crawling its way through the snowstorm. About 15 minutes later, the semi hit its brakes and she swerved into the shoulder to avoid it.
“Once we stopped we didn’t move again until 10 p.m.,” she said.
Colgan said one of her best friends, Destiny George, turned out to also be stranded less than half a mile ahead, so they stayed on the phone most of the time to keep each other company. Luckily, both of them had enough gas in their tanks to keep their cars idling and their heaters on through the whole ordeal, but Colgan said she did get hungry.
“I was thinking, my dad is going to be mad at me because I didn’t have any food or water with me,” she said. “But I did have blankets and my snow boots and a heavy coat.”
She also said she learned her lesson about always checking to see if the roads are closed before setting out.
Jaymie Hathaway, another Hermiston resident stranded on Saturday, said she learned not to travel at all during a blizzard if it isn’t an emergency.
Hathaway had gone to the Tri-Cities to buy a van. Her father, Brad Hathaway, drove her up and offered to drive the van on the way back because it would be less reliable in the snow than his SUV. They got on the road about 2 p.m.
Hathaway said they had made it past Coffin Road when people started hitting their brakes. After she stopped, she said, two pickup trucks slid around her and her dad managed to stop sliding just feet behind her.
“I was just waiting for the impact,” she said. “I was so scared.”
The van didn’t have much gas in it, Hathaway said, so her dad turned it off and got in the SUV with her as they watched that gas gauge creep below a quarter tank.
About 8:30 p.m. a group of cars in front of them were given the OK to start moving, and everyone cleared off their windshields and restarted their cars. Hathaway said she was at the head of the line for the second batch of cars that was let through.
“So many times I couldn’t see anything,” she said. “It was just pure white. I just kept going straight and hoping I was on the road.”
She stopped at a gas station as soon as she hit Umatilla, and said she would encourage everyone to fill up their tank any time they’re heading out in bad weather.
While all the stranded travelers were off the interstate before midnight, the road did not open again until Sunday afternoon.
Oregon State Police Sgt. Seth Cooney said he was busy that day with crashes on Interstate 84 west of Boardman and stopped into the Love’s Travel Stop in town. People there inundated him with questions on how to get to where they wanted to.
“The first thing I tell everybody is look up Trip Check,” he said, referring to www.tripcheck.com, which the Oregon Department of Transportation uses to provide information about road conditions and closures. “They really need to take a look at that, because ODOT is very good about keeping it up to date.”
Cooney also suggested drivers plan for alternate routes. With I-82 shut down, he said, you could take Highway 730 east to Highway 12 to Pasco. He said road crews do a good job of keeping that route open.
“Those are the two biggest things — look at the road conditions and look for an alternate route,” he said.
Cooney added if you don’t have to travel in this weather, don’t.
The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning this week for a swath from outside Fossil to Pendleton and covering the rest of northeast Oregon.
That warning means “severe winter weather conditions will make travel very hazardous or impossible.”
Forecaster Rob Brooks, with the federal agency in Pendleton, said back-to-back winter storms are covering the region, with one heading north toward the Tri-Cities. That could provide a break in snowfall on Thursday, but the next weather system moves in Friday with more snow.
“This could possibly last all the way up to Wednesday,” he said.
That would be Feb. 20, more than a week away.
Snowfall at the NWS office was at 5 inches Monday at 7 a.m., but Brooks said the snow piled “way past that” before noon. Locals on social media reported as much as 10 inches in Pendleton, 11 inches in Pilot Rock and a foot of snow in Elgin. Most reported the snow still was falling when they made the measurements.
High temperatures this week will be stay in the lower 30s, and overnight lows will dip to near 20. The Weather Service also warned about avalanches for the Blue Mountains, the Elkhorns and the southern Wallowa Mountains.
The InterMountain Education Service District at about 5:30 a.m. reported weather prompted the school districts in Pendleton and Pilot Rock to close their schools while other districts were opening late. The more the snow fell, the more schools closed. By 9 a.m., the school districts of Morrow County, Ione, Athena-Weston, Helix and Stanfield shut the doors for the day.
The Athena-Weston School District shifted its board meeting from Monday to Tuesday because of the weather, while the Pendleton School District delayed its meeting until Wednesday at 10 a.m. The Morrow County School District reschuduled its board meeting and work session from Monday to March 11.
Blue Mountain Community College closed all its locations. Head Start centers in Hermiston, Irrigon, Boardman and Milton-Freewater are closed Tuesday, according to the Oregon Child Development Coalition.
Hermiston Police Department Lt. Randy Studebaker took to the department’s Facebook page to deliver a more upbeat take, announcing the cancellation of all criminal activity until the weather improves.
“It is illegal to commit any crimes within the City of Hermiston until further notice,” Studebaker posted. “We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your cooperation.”
Other police departments across the nation have made similar proclamations, he stated, and he was a”little embarrassed that we didn’t think of this first, but it really is the best solution for everybody.”
The effectiveness of outlawing unlawfulness remains a question.