PORTLAND, Ore. – An ice storm shut down major highways Wednesday in Oregon and Washington state and paralyzed towns in the Columbia River Gorge with up to 2 inches of ice at the same time rising temperatures in Portland raised the prospect of flooding after the largest snowstorm in years.
As temperatures hovered around freezing, Interstate 84 was shut down for about 45 miles in an area northeast of Portland and again farther east due to blizzard conditions. Transportation officials had no immediate plans to reopen the highway connecting Oregon and Idaho.
Officials warned Idaho motorists not to head west toward Oregon on the highway where dozens of semi-trucks with no place to go were lined up and double-parked along ramps near the point of the closure.
“They just towed me out because they want to clear the road, but I don’t think I-84 is back open,” said Brad Cottle, a trucker who got stuck in the mess and spent the night in his cab. “I’m going to have to go back to the truck stop.”
It was the latest weather drama in Oregon, which has been pummeled in recent weeks by intense snowfall and uncharacteristically cold temperatures.
Portland, a city more accustomed to mild, rainy winters, was hit last week by a storm that dumped more than a foot of snow in some areas – the third significant snowfall since December. The frigid spell – with temperatures plunging as low as 13 degrees – is the second-coldest since 1941.
Temperatures are usually in high 30s and 40s in the winter.
Four homeless people have died of exposure in Portland. Schools have been closed for days throughout the state and businesses shuttered. Portland’s streets remained coated with a thick layer of rutted ice for almost a week until Wednesday, when rain began to melt the snow.
Portland generally doesn’t use salt on its roads during winter weather but experimented with it in specific locations after a storm last month left commuters trapped in their cars for hours.
Melting snow and heavy rain caused sewage to overflow in several locations into the Willamette River on Wednesday afternoon, according to the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services. People were urged to avoid the river for two days after the overflow ends because of increased bacteria in the water.
Officials didn’t yet know how much sewage had overflowed.
Transportation officials also closed part of a Portland street Wednesday afternoon after a landslide.
Bonneville, on the Washington state side of the Columbia River, had 2 inches of ice, and Hood River, on the Oregon side, got 1.5 inches, said Andy Bryant, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service office in Portland.
Meteorologists compared the scene to severe storms in 1996 and 2004.
“That kind of ice accumulation is pretty unusual,” Bryant said. “This is a big one.”
Billy Graham, 57, was trying to visit friends and family after driving from Texas but was stranded at a Motel 6 along Interstate 84 in Troutdale. He hadn’t been able to get out of his room, even on foot, because of the slick pavement, he said in a telephone interview.
“I haven’t eaten in a couple of days,” he said. “You can’t even walk. If you do, you fall down.”
Farther east, I-84 was also closed again between Pendleton and Ontario, and Interstate 82 was also shut down between I-84 and the Washington border.
In Washington state, Interstate 90, the main highway connecting western and eastern Washington, was to remain closed over Snoqualmie Pass because of hazardous winter conditions. Crews will re-evaluate the roadway Thursday morning.
Charles McCaskill, a trucker heading to Nebraska to deliver frozen salmon, pulled over along the shoulder of I-90 waiting for the highway to reopen.
“It’s just one of those things we’ve got to deal with,” said the Florida trucker who slept in his cab overnight.
In Northern California, a wind storm led to the cancellation of dozens of flights at San Francisco International Airport. Muir Woods National Park was closed after several redwood trees toppled.
California is bracing for two more storms through the weekend.
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