GIBBON — The stench of gasoline hung heavy in the air as the translucent liquid was carried by the water rushing over what had been Steve and Linda Caldwell’s yard just days ago. Standing in inches of the murky Umatilla River water Sunday, Dawn Caldwell pointed to the losses her parent’s property had suffered when a combination of snowmelt and rainfall caused record flooding in the rural communities of the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Gibbon last week.
“The pasture is gone. The shed is gone. The backyard is gone,” she said to American Red Cross volunteers Juanita Daggett and Cody Hubert. “Everything is gone.”
The Caldwell’s home was built on Cayuse Road from scratch over 50 years ago, but the destruction brought by floodwaters may be the end of it. After surges washed away much of the outside and about 8 inches of water filled the home Thursday, Dawn said the family is likely to just pay off any loans that remain and be done with the property altogether.
The scene and story wasn’t uncommon for Daggett, Hubert and the other Red Cross volunteers who spent Sunday touring impacted areas throughout Umatilla County gathering the first assessments of damage done to personal property.
“How big is this disaster? How many homes have been affected?” Curtis Peetz said as he led the first group of volunteers through training Sunday morning at the Pendleton Convention Center. “These are the questions you’re going to be able to help us answer.”
Following four days of evacuations that led to 54 people, 10 dogs, one cat and one rabbit being rescued, search and rescue operations transitioned into assessments from government agencies on Monday with Umatilla County and Oregon Department of Transportation crews beginning to estimate the extent of the damages.
The Northwest River Forecast Center recorded the Touchet River near Walla Walla slightly below the action stage at 9.61 feet as of 5:30 p.m. Monday. Levels have fallen below action stages along the Umatilla River, with the forecast center recording the river in Pendleton at 8.48 feet and at 5.47 feet near Gibbon at 5 p.m.
With waters receding and flood warnings lifted, people are beginning to return to their homes and start the cleanup process. But as they arrive, they’re returning to see what had been yards of grass have been turned into beaches of mud covered in debris from homes, trees and anything else that was unlucky enough to get caught in the river’s torrent.
While the county, tribal and municipal governments will focus their assessments on damage to public property, Peetz said the Red Cross serves a vital role in first assessing home damages, and then connecting people in need of both short- and long-term resources.
According to Nadine McCrindle, the executive director of the Eastern and Central chapter of the American Red Cross Cascades region, numbers are still being compiled from Sunday’s assessments, but the organization will use the data to collaborate with government entities as they develop the next stages of response.
As of Monday afternoon, McCrindle said their volunteers had assessed 104 homes throughout Umatilla County.
As Peetz explained it, the goal of the assessments isn’t to be perfect but to get a first look with eyes on the ground to gauge what type of assistance and how much assistance will be needed.
While many, if not all of the volunteers had never officially volunteered for disaster relief, just about all were motivated by a nagging need to help their communities.
“I want to help these people,” said Sheila Campbell, who lives on Pendleton’s North Hill and wasn’t impacted by the floods. “I just want to do something.”
On Sunday, Campbell joined an assessment group with Greg Alexander and Wynn Avocette, who have been volunteers with the Red Cross for about a year but hadn’t been called to action until Saturday.
Then, the two took part in the organization’s first assessments of the Riverside neighborhood in Pendleton, which Alexander said contained 55 homes that suffered major damage and six that were minor. Three homes were completely destroyed.
“That was really eye-opening,” he said.
Kay Davis moved to Pendleton from New York City over a year and a half ago, but saw first hand last September how helpful the community can be when disaster strikes. As a fire raged and ultimately destroyed the building for the thrift shop We Sell Stuff on Southwest First Street in Pendleton, strangers helped Davis clear out items from her nearby shop on Main Street, Old School Shirt Makers New York.
Her building suffered smoke damage and the flames never reached it, but for Davis, who has lived through hurricanes in Florida and tornadoes in Kansas, that act of kindness from others pushed her to donate her time on Sunday.
“That was just strangers helping strangers,” she said. “So I just wanted to come out and help others.”
After dealing with the impacts of the McKay Creek floods a year ago and seeing the Riverside neighborhood in Pendleton, which is the area she grew up in, inundated with water this year, Daggett wanted to be on the ground helping people as soon as possible. Daggett works with the Community Action Program of East Central Oregon (CAPECO) on providing housing for the homeless, and said she’ll likely be working on relief and recovery efforts in the days to come as well.
Providing emergency responses isn’t completely new to Hubert, who is a reserve firefighter for East Umatilla Fire & Rescue and a member of Oregon Offroad Recovery, which is a volunteer group that regularly provides towing and other response services free of charge around Oregon’s backroads.
Prior to their assessments, volunteers went through training sessions Sunday where they learned of the Red Cross’s principles, how to categorize the damages they’d see, and then divvied up various locations among the volunteers.
Daggett is a former Umatilla Tribal dispatcher and familiar with the reservation, so she was quick to volunteer Hubert and herself to attempt to assess the Gibbon area, which Peetz said would be more of a “search and find” due to damage sustained to the roads.
The roads held up for the two as they made their way out toward Gibbon and down Cayuse Creek Road, where after a few miles they stumbled across Ross Simmons and their first home to assess.
Simmons was stranded at his home after the flood washed away much of his driveway, leaving nothing but river rock and the occasional piece of asphalt jutting up awkwardly from the ground. Even if there was a way for him to access the road, the vehicles in his yard had their wheels submerged and cemented by mud, rendering them useless.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation had dropped off food for Simmons Sunday morning, he said, but for now he still had electricity and the water had never actually entered his home.
Simmons had relied on well water, so he provided CTUIR with a water sample Sunday to test that it’d still be safe to consume. In the meantime, he said he was boiling all the water before use. Though the volunteers offered to connect him with resources to get him off the property, Simmons was ready to ride it out.
“I’ll just wait,” he said, smiling.
Further up the road, Daggett and Hubert stopped to assess another property that was completely inaccessible. The driveway was destroyed and water had formed a new channel running directly through a barn. The only life to be found on the property was four soggy cows that had found a dry patch of land to stand on for the time being.
The group continued on for nearly two hours, stopping at each home they could see from the street or make contact with the inhabitants outside, before even getting near Gibbon. Each property varied in damage, often dependent on how protected they were by the adjacent railroad tracks.
As the volunteers arrived at Joe McBean’s property on Bingham Road, it was clear there had been little to protect his manufactured home. Inches of thick mud was all that remained around it now that the waters that had turned it into an island were gone.
The floods had swept away his five horses, which he’d heard had been saved by his neighbors but was unable to confirm. McBean had sent his wife and daughter into Pendleton to get out of harm’s way, but he was worried about looters and a bad back had kept him stuck in the house alone.
Without a phone, which got knocked out Saturday, and running low on propane he needed to keep his well water boiled, Daggett and Hubert took down McBean’s information and vowed to try and get some resources out to him.
“It’s sad and tragic that they’re going through this and there’s not much we can do to offer immediate support,” Daggett said.
The two continued further on Bingham Road, which grew more and more treacherous by the mile. Winding through the area, Hubert kept his truck to the left of the road and away from the edge closest to the river, where floodwaters had eroded its foundation.
Eventually, their truck came to the stop shy of a curve where flowing water was still covering the road, with more stretches ahead that had a deteriorated foundation. With too much danger before them, Daggett and Hubert had no choice but to turn around.
In some parts, the damage is too severe even to assess.