The Oregon Office of Emergency Management is not ready to declare emergencies for two Eastern Oregon counties due to flooding.
State Sen. Bill Hansell of Athena and state Rep. Greg Barreto of Cove, both Republicans, wrote a letter Monday urging Gov. Kate Brown to declare a state of emergency for Umatilla and Wallowa counties. Hansell said he heard about the flooding from Umatilla County Commissioner John Shafer, then reached out Barreto’s office. They conferred with more officials in Umatilla, Wallawa and Union counties, and his and Barreto’s office drafted the letter.
“I hand delivered it about 11:30 Monday morning,” Hansell said.
“These counties are in need of state and federal assistance as they work to combat rising waters and the aftermath of flooding,” the lawmakers stated in the letter to Brown, a Democrat. “A State of Emergency declaration from your office is needed in order for these counties to prepare and recover from the widespread flooding they are experiencing.”
Hansell said they also emailed the letter to Nik Blosser, Brown’s chief of staff, as well as a link to the city of Pendleton’s video showing the flooding along McKay Creek.
Later Monday, Hansell’s chief of staff, Evan Bryan, got a call from Andrew Phelps, the director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, who denied the request.
Phelps explained his office’s decision during a call Tuesday.
“There’s just not the justification for it,” he said.
An emergency declaration does not open up access to more funds, but rather is an administrative tool that allows the state to bypass certain regulations. Under a declaration, the state could send in National Guard troops, for example, reassign state employees or waive how many hours truckers can work to make sure fuel gets to the site of a crisis.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provided tens of thousands of sandbags, Phelps said, and the state fire marshal’s office sent in an incident management team to oversee the response in Pendleton and to work with local officials. All of that was possible without the declaration.
Phelps said his office is talking on a regular basis with Umatilla County emergency manager Tom Roberts, who told the state the local response was handling the flooding, even at its peak Saturday. If the justification arises, Phelps said, his office would not hesitate to declare an emergency.
Meanwhile, the incident command team reported six homes along McKay Creek in Pendleton remain without power. Crews surveyed 102 homes in the McKay area and found nine with flooded basements, 28 with subfloor or foundation flooding and 65 where water encroached on property, and more than 90 homes used sandbags.
The Bureau of Reclamation dropped the flow from McKay Dam to 1,500 cubic feet per second Tuesday, lowering the rush of water into the creek, with the goal of reducing it to 1,200 cfs by Wednesday. According to the bureau, back-to-back storms in the McKay Creek watershed produced record rainfall of 3 inches, well above the average April, which led to the need for the high discharge.
The latest updates on the flood reported the incident management team from the state returned command to local authorities Tuesday afternoon. Pendleton and Umatilla County will continue to work together as the scene transitions into the recovery stage.
The National Weather Service reported Tuesday’s rainfall is not as heavy as was forecasted. Most rainfall is coming from the north, and that does not directly affect the flooding in Pendleton.
The city reopened Struve Bridge at Kirk Extension for residents, and water is flowing freely below the private bridge at the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
People should stay out of flood water. The command team advised anyone who has to go into flooded areas to wear sturdy shoes to prevent injuries. Also, currents could cause falls and even drowning. Flooding also may have washed out roads and other areas, making them unstable. Anyone in the flood waters should wash thoroughly, including clothing and shoes, to prevent possible contamination.
Don’t stand in water when turning power off or on. Instead of wading through water to access the main power switch, call an an electrician. And keep generators outside to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. The command team also urged locals to keep their sandbags in place.
The team is holding a community meeting Wednesday starting at 6 p.m at Sherwood Heights Elementary, 3235 S.W. Nye Ave., Pendleton, to provide information to the community members along McKay Creek.