SOUTH COAST - When Bandon residents Sue and Walt Dodrill headed home from Portland on Sunday, Feb. 24, after attending a grandchild's birthday party, they figured they'd make it by about midnight, traveling their usual route down I-5 and through state Highway 38.
They didn't want to stay in the Portland area because a snowstorm was predicted. Heading south, they'd miss the worst of it.
So imagine their surprise when snow started to fall heavily as they exited I-5 to Highway 38. No problem, they thought. They have a new heavy duty 4-wheel-drive truck that would make it through the snow.
Closer to Elkton, about halfway through the highway that is a major travel route from I-5 to the coast, things got suddenly worse. The Dodrills were stopped in traffic for one and a half hours. The freak storm dropped more than a foot of heavy, wet snow onto already saturated ground in a matter of hours. That, and accompanying wind caused devastation that was likened to the aftermath of a hurricane.
"The dangerous part was being on the roads, with trees falling around us," Sue Dodrill said after they arrived home safely - two days later. "Cars ahead of us were pulling to the right side of the road and we couldn't figure out what was going on. Then a huge tree fell."
Thousands of trees fell across the highway with loud cracking and popping noises. They fell on power lines over an extended area of the highway, causing power outages that are still not completely repaired, though crews have been working around the clock.
The Dodrills finally made it to Elkton and pulled over - along with about 70 other vehicles, which lined both sides of the small town.
"There was a whole bunch of us there," Dodrill said.
The couple hunkered down in their truck and spent the night in it, turning the engine on and off periodically to warm up.
About midnight, a woman came by and told stranded motorists that the Elkton Baptist Church nearby was open and although it didn't have power, there was a generator and they offered a place to sleep and get some food. Though they tried to proceed on the highway following another couple, they soon heard roads were closed in all directions, so turned around and went back to Elkton.
The Dodrills went to the church in the morning, where they were greeted with coffee and a hot breakfast of pancakes, hash browns and eggs. There, they received some road information, but it was conflicting, so decided to stay that night at the church. They slept in pews with blankets and sleeping bags on loan from residents. They were served hot chili that evening and plenty of hospitality. One woman played the piano and a man played the clarinet to keep people entertained. The crowd at the church included locals and travelers.
"The people in Elkton were fantastic," Dodrill said. "They were nice and helpful and did anything they could."
The biggest frustration was the lack of communication. For two full days, the Dodrills were not able to communicate with family in Bandon. Cell service was down as well as land lines. Police and emergency personnel were busy of stranded themselves, so weren't available to relay messages for everyone who was stranded.
"My daughter called the Reedsport police and the hospital, then Oregon State Police," Dodrill said. "Nobody was prepared for this. We thought it would just be rain. I've never seen anything so bad and all the trees that were down ..."
On Tuesday morning about 8:30 a.m., the Dodrills were able to drive through to Reedsport - a slow trek, as trees were being cut and removed from the highway as they waited. There, they were able to contact family. When Sue finally had cell service, there were 74 messages on her phone.
Bandon resident Marilyn Williams had a similar experience, but stayed in her truck for 36 hours. She was coming home from a trade show in Salem, and checked the weather before she left at 6:30 p.m., also believing the storm was going to hit to the north. Accuweather said Highway 38 would have minor vegetation on the road and some snow with minimal delays.
"I had dry pavement until Eugene. Then it was hell between Drain and Elkton," Williams said. "People were getting stopped (by the falling trees)."
Williams pulled her cargo van over about 7:30 p.m. and checked the Oregon Department of Transportation website again. She stayed there, not far from an Oregon State Police trooper who was also stranded, close to the Elkton Elementary School. They couldn't move because power lines were across the highway. By 11:30 p.m., everyone had pulled over and parked for the night.
"I spent the night with Trooper Dunlap," she joked. "I have to laugh at it now, but it was just frustrating at the time."
She finally made it out the next morning when the lines were cleared enough for passage, following Trooper Dunlap in his vehicle, but it was slow going.
Williams travels frequently and felt she was probably better prepared for the storm than 90 percent of the people who came upon it. She had water, food and blankets and had been able to communicate with her husband on Sunday evening to tell him she was fine.
"That was the big thing," she said. "Everybody in that line (of stopped vehicles) couldn't call out."
Williams can't say enough about the efforts of ODOT workers, state troopers, county deputies, Douglas County Fire Protection District employees and other emergency personnel who responded.
"They were all so great and so patient and nice and kept checking on us," she said.
After so many hours in a vehicle, people start to get out and talk with each other. Even in the snow, that's what Williams witnessed as well. There was a couple in front of her from Coos Bay with a 6-month-old baby who were frantic. A nearby resident came with diapers and formula when he heard, then invited the couple to their home, which they accepted. A man came down with a hot casserole that his wife had made and was serving it on plates to the stranded motorists. Others were using chain saws to clear the highway, or digging cars out of the snow.
"I saw a lot of good in people," Williams said.
The Dodrills didn't feel they were ever in danger, but they also didn't feel prepared. They have a new truck and hadn't moved items from the old one yet. No blankets or food and only one bottle of water. They also weren't dressed for the weather and had no heavy or waterproof coats.
"We weren't really prepared," Dodrill said. "I don't think anyone was."
Now they plan to get those items into the new truck.
"Walt said he's going to put a pair of old boots," Dodrill said.
'A teachable moment'
Luckily, the "freak storm" wasn't deadly and didn't leave people stranded for days, though many are still without power. One positive result of such events is that people are reminded that they should be more prepared.
"I call this the dry run for the (expected Cascadia) earthquake," said Avery Horton, founder of Southwestern Oregon Preppers. "It's just an awareness that disasters can come at any time when you least expect it and they come in all sizes."
Horton, who's holding a SWOP meeting in Brookings at 3 p.m. Saturday, March 16, is hoping to get residents there on board. The Hooskanadan Slide north of Brookings on U.S. Highway 101, caused by heavy rain, prevented large trucks from getting through. Horton said there were temporary gas shortages and stores were out of milk, among other groceries.
Though it wasn't serious, it was a wake-up call that Horton hopes people listen to. He has a prepper friend in Sutherlin on Highway 138 that was hit by the snow and power outages, who found he wasn't as prepared as he thought.
"He learned some lessons," Horton said. "You've got to stay on top of this."
People need to have emergency supplies in both their cars and homes, Horton advised. Everyone's "bag" will look a little different, but should include the basics - water, food, lighter, flashlights, blankets, clothing. Medications are especially important for those who depend on them daily.
"You should never leave the house without a week's supply of medications," Horton said. "People think they can just leave the house and get to where they're going, but that's not always the case. They need to start taking action."
Horton added that preparing doesn't need to be expensive. It's easy to build an emergency kit and save 60-70 percent of what the pre-made kits sell for.
"You'll save money and get a lot more," Horton said. "But even if people do choose to buy a ready-made kit, I applaud them for their efforts. At least they did something."
Coos County Emergency Management Program Manager Mike Murphy also stressed that the storm was a "teachable moment."
"I really urge people to be prepared and have at least the recommended two week's worth of supplies, though I personally recommend a month," Murphy said. "Start small and build your supplies."
He agreed that people need to have emergency kits in their cars and make sure they top off their vehicle's fuel tank when it's half full.
"Some of the folks who were traveling didn't even have the basics in their cars," Murphy said. "What if they had been there five or six days?"
It doesn't take much to get prepared. While the "big one" - the Cascadia earthquake that is expected to hit the area sometime in the next 50 years - is the one to prepare for, it's the smaller emergencies that are the more likely events - snow, wind, rain and fires.
"People need to be prepared, it gives peace of mind," Murphy said. "They need to be ready because you never know, just like the folks in Elkton didn't."