The mood was upbeat when the first heavy snowfall of the season blasted Central Oregon in early December. After all, it was the holidays.
When the second round of snow hit in early January, "upbeat" turned to "feeling beat"—and for good reason. Coping with heavy snow during a time when many people are on holiday is one thing; dealing with the prolonged reality of ugly weather as real life started again was quite another.
Snomaggedon: A recap
This year, the snowfall totals have resulted in way more than a pretty winter wonderland. On Jan. 12 the gymnasium roof at Bend's Highland Magnet School collapsed. It happened before school hours and no one was hurt. Bend-LaPine Schools, which had already been closed for close to a week due to the weather, closed for yet another week while roof safety checks were conducted at 38 schools. Redmond Public Schools followed suit, and parents of young children region-wide were forced to find day care alternatives.
While Bend-La Pine's superintendent Shay Mikalson has yet to announce the actual costs associated with school snow removal (and demolition of the gym), he estimated the costs at over $1 million in a letter to families Jan. 20, and indicated the district's intent to pursue Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief funds to cover costs. The school year is still slated to end June 22, Mikalson said in that letter.
In addition to the damage at Highland School there was roof damage at the Fed-Ex Ship Center in Bend and the storage facility at Hooker Creek. On Jan. 18, the majority of the roof on the former Ray's Food Place on Century Drive collapsed.
Meanwhile, many homes have reported leakage and structural damage from heavy snow on roofs. It became a common sight to see work crews charging upwards of $75 an hour to shovel snow from rooftops. Snow plows, working around the clock to clear roads, plowed snow into 10-foot berms.
Roads and streets became rutted with ice. Cars bounced over ruts in the city's roundabouts. Street drainage was often blocked with ice and debris, and the "Big Melt" of last week produced lakes of water flooding over streets and sidewalks.
Local officials passed out 13,000 sandbags—the equivalent of 193 tons—to people in preparation for flooding. When ice cleared, there was evidence of new potholes burrowing into streets.
When in doubt, ask a meteorologist
We know what you're wondering: Is this winter a record for snowfall? Not yet. Zolo Media meteorologist Jack Church points out that Central Oregon has received fewer than 60 inches of snow so far this winter. Two other winters on record surpass it by substantial margins. In the winter of 1992-93, the National Weather Service Bend monitoring station measured 89.6 inches of snow. The winter of 1973-74 measured just over 90 inches.
Church says the weather pattern leading into the winter was, at first, considered neutral. "But we began to see some cooling in the Pacific waters that led us to believe we were going into a La Niña situation," he said.
While La Niña is considered a cooler weather pattern, its counterpart, El Niño, is considered warmer and is often associated with drought conditions. What was different about the current La Niña pattern is that it has been colder than typical, Church says.
"We've had the combination of abnormally cold weather along with ample moisture coming in—the result being heavy snowfall across the area," said Church.
The 30-year historical average snowfall for Bend is approximately 23 inches. So while this winter has far surpassed the historical average, it falls short of the record 90+ inches set 43 years ago.
The weather now vs. then
Still, some snowfall records were broken in Central Oregon in early 2017. The National Weather Service recorded a 24-inch snowpack on Jan. 11 at its Bend location near Highway 20 and Pilot Butte. That broke a record of 16 inches dating back to 1993. Whether this season's snowfall amounts will surpass 1992-93 remains to be seen, but longtime residents say this winter seems very similar.
Bend resident Dan Kehoe was a longtime resident of Sunriver and witnessed firsthand the 1992-93 winter snowfall at the resort. Kehoe said the snow began as light powder but didn't end that way. Living on Shadow Lane, he shoveled twice daily. It continued to pile up. "There was way too much snow for the plows," he said. Two lane roads became one lane. "I could walk from my yard down to my roof," he recalled.
Roof shoveling became a necessity and many roofs were shoveled more than once. There was much damage from ice dams, roof collapses and broken pipes. It sounds all too familiar.
Downtown business as usual
Prior to the holidays, downtown business was normal, said Rod Porsche, director of the Downtown Bend Business Association. "It's obviously been a record snowfall, but by and large, I've been impressed with everybody doing their part to keep sidewalks and streets accessible," he told us. The DBBA is responsible for helping clear sidewalks and certain pedestrian crossings in downtown Bend.
In a special move, the city of Bend closed downtown streets to parking the night of Jan. 15 to remove snow blocking street parking access. Crews removed snow on Bond, Wall, Minnesota, Franklin and Oregon streets. "A private contractor assisted the removal using 10 dump trucks and they cleared out a lot of the snow," said Porsche.
"By and large, parking has been restored to more acceptable levels. People can get into spaces and that's been a huge improvement," he stated. He continued, "There was just too much snow to continue to plow and great credit to the city for arranging with the private contractor to remove it."
Noting that January/February business is traditionally slower than pre-holiday, Porsche says he talked to one business owner who reported sales were down 20 percent prior to the city's special removal effort, but are now down just 5 percent after snow removal, which he said the owner credits to more available parking near her business.
City spends roughly $300K+ on plowing in January
City of Bend Communications Director Anne Aurand says crews are still assessing damage from the storms and that final costs won't be available for some time. Crews removed snow from the roofs of most city-owned buildings such as City Hall, the Police Department and the Fire Administration building, finding only a few minor leaks.
The City of Bend has 850 miles of roads to maintain. Winter clearing equipment consists of 22 pieces of city-owned equipment—much of it older and in need of maintenance. When the City calls in private contractors, the fleet includes more than 40 pieces of equipment.
Streets Director David Abbas reported December costs for snowplowing—above regular wage and benefit costs—was more than $328,000. Initial estimates are $350,000 - $400,000, according to the City. The city's street plowing budget for the entire winter season is $1.2 million.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors
Cheryl Howard coordinates Neighbors Helping Neighbors volunteers who respond to hundreds of calls from La Pine to Crooked River Ranch from people needing assistance. She said the volume of calls increased dramatically over past years. "Our vulnerable are running out of resources like propane and food and often can't get out," she told the Source Weekly. The agency connects the many volunteers to those calling for assistance.
"Delivery trucks often can't get down their driveways because there's too much snow," she stated. "We've had people in remote, rural areas running out of food, heat and other necessities in this epic- level event." Howard says with last week's melt the region "dodged a bullet."
Howard says nextdoor.com was a useful web tool in keeping neighbors advised and in touch during the storms, and that, fortunately, there were no Internet disruptions during the events.
Mountain snow totals
The team at Mt. Bachelor reports that the mountain has received over 332 inches of snow since Oct. 1. At the 7,300-foot mid-mountain level, there's about a 130-inch snow depth. Officials are hopeful the mountain will remain open into May, which is traditional.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture/Natural Resources Conservation Service updates a daily report which monitors snow water levels throughout Oregon. Its Jan. 19 report indicated the Upper Deschutes, Crooked River region was 128 percent of normal, a good indicator there will be adequate water supplies for farmers and cities next summer. The highest snow-water level percentage in the state is found in the Owyhee region, measuring 167 percent of normal.
Snowpack levels are considered an indicator of drought conditions and forest fire potential. Accurate measurements help the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation make decisions regarding reservoir water storage and stream flow releases. Meanwhile, the Climate Prediction Center is calling for greater chances of above average temperatures this summer.
What's ahead? The exit of La Niña
According to the National Weather Service, the rest of the winter will include colder than normal conditions in Central and Eastern Oregon. The La Niña weather pattern is expected to moderate in the coming weeks as winter transitions to spring.
February will bring "much below-average temperatures east of the Cascades and above—or well above —average precipitation and mountain snowfall," with March bringing cool but moderating temperatures east of the Cascades with above average mountain snowpack, according to the NWS.