Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Chaos, Part II

A shot of downtown Portland, near the river front.

So we had finally made it to Oregon. We woke Tuesday morning, and set ourselves on another crazy course of events.

We're in Corvallis, which is in the Willamette Valley, south of Portland. The weather was fine here - the usual cold, rainy December we fully expected to see. We heard varying reports of the conditions north of us, but couldn't get a real sense of what things were like.

We needed to return the rental car in Portland, and knew there was another storm coming in on Wednesday. It was going to drop another 4-6" of snow in Portland, meaning that the road conditions were only going to worsen in the next 48 hours. I made the executive decision, and we saddled up the family truckster and the rental car, put Big J in his car seat, and hit I-5 North towards Portland and the airport rental car facility.

Note of explanation: Western Oregon doesn't usually see snow. If there is more than 1/4" of snow, cities shut down and the residents go into panic mode. There are few snow plows, and because Oregon is so environmentally focused, the plows use rubber-tipped blades to protect the roads. They also don't use a standard salt or ice-melt, but some concoction which is only marginally effective but safer for the environment. We knew the plows had been out (the few Portland has), and they were making a concerted effort to keep the roads clear, but didn't know what that meant.

The first 20 miles of I-5 were fine. We approached Salem and started to see snow accumulation on the side of the freeway. Mid-way through Salem, traffic slowed down as big-rig trucks were pulling over to put on their chains. A few cars were doing the same, but we kept on going. The roads weren't too bad - mostly packed snow.

About 3 miles outside of Salem it all fell apart.

The roads turned into a solid sheet of ice, with packed snow on top. The ice varied from 2-5 inches in thickness, and was often rutted out by the traffic. Some spots were totally clear, then turned suddenly into ice. Others trapped you into deep, icy ruts forcing your car into one place for miles. People were criss-crossing the icy road, and creating their own lanes.

As we approached Portland, the roads got worse and worse. We slowed down to 30, then 20, then 10 mph. Traffic began to back up for miles. At one point, there was a gentleman who proceeded to ride his bike onto the freeway onramp, and he outpaced traffic for several hundred yards. Portlanders are crazy about biking.

Merging onto I-205 took most of an hour. It then took another hour to go 6 miles. The conditions were worse here, and it appeared that the roads had once been plowed to the point where the ice accumulated and froze into several giant speed bumps. Once we passed these glaciers, the roads were clear to the airport. In all, it took us 4 hours to make what is normally a 1 hour, 45 minute trip.

I-5 Southbound. This looks about 9,000% better than it was on Tuesday's trip.

After dropping off the car, we heard a news report stating that I-5 southbound would be closed for 1 hour for plowing. This was the perfect chance to stop for food, a diaper change, and gas before trying to make our way home. The side roads were terrible - mostly unplowed, with the majority of cars using chains and sliding through intersections. Parked cars were buried under accumulated snow & what the plows had thrown on top. Many, many people were walking, as most public transportation had been shut down that day.

We gave it a little extra time, and hopped back on the freeway at 6:15pm. The first 4 miles were fine, then traffic stopped completely. After travelling 4 miles in 2 hours, we had heard no updates on the radio and calls to friends and family yielded no updates from ODOT. Finally, we used the GPS to plot a route which would get us to I-5 via side streets. We rode the shoulder to an exit, and took off down dark, unplowed, mostly uninhabited streets.

Other cars had decided to do the same, so we were not alone. At one point we were trapped in a rut heading into oncoming traffic, and Big Daddy slowed down to try and wrench the car out and get us safely back into our lane. It was then that we realized the side roads were also completely coated with ice under a thin layer of snow.

We fishtailed back and forth, launched down a snowy embankment next to a field, and landed on top of some snow covered bushes. We missed an electrical box by about 12 inches.

Everyone was fine, including Big J - who didn't make a peep.

We were not getting out of this by ourselves. We were dozens of miles from family or friends, surrounded by ice, snow, freezing temperatures, dangerous roads, and minimal drive-by traffic. Several people stopped to ask if we were OK, but moved on after a moment.

A man driving a large Ford truck stopped to check on us. He started talking to Big Daddy, and offered to try and tow us out. We had nothing to lose at that point, so we we agreed to give it a shot. On the third try (with many prayers and a careful application of the gas pedal while in reverse), we were back on the road. He pulled over with us as Big Daddy put on the chains, and I talked with him and his wife for a minute. They were out with their two teenage sons, and had been making their way home after getting out for some groceries. I truly do not know what would have happened to us if they had not stopped to help. If I ever needed evidence that the Lord both hears and answers our prayers, I received it that night.

We slowly made our way back to I-5, and although the road was not good, the freeway was in far better shape than the side roads we had just travelled over. We took off the chains in Salem, and the rest of the trip was speedy and uneventful.

Damage to the car was limited to the front bumper, and even that was far better than either of us anticipated.

We arrived home at 2am - 15 hours after setting out that morning.

Note II: We later heard that the National Guard was called to some parts of the Portland metro area to reach areas that were "too remote" for standard emergency vehicles. This is the most snow that Portland has received in 40 years. The city has spent over $2 million dollars in the last two weeks trying to keep things under control. The weather is warming up this week, and the city's advice to its residents is: grab a shovel & start digging.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

I am so glad you guys are all ok. How scary. I hope that the weather clears up for you and that you can enjoy the rest of your trip without any more crazy weather.