Douglas County Storm

Volunteers serve a hot meal Thursday to a long line of people at an American Red Cross shelter at Elkton High School. A Feb. 24 storm brought heavy, wet snow and wind that downed thousands of trees along U.S. Highway 38 and left 30,000 homes without power.

SOUTH COAST — Driving down state Highway 138, the storm damage reminded one American Red Cross member of the aftermath from Hurricane Michael.

Slippers near a cot at an American Red Cross shelter Thursday at Elkton High School. The organization setup the shelter after Feb. 24 storm 30…

“The tree damage after Hurricane Michael is no more severe than the tree damage done by this snowfall,” said Joel King, disaster program manager for the American Red Cross and the mass care shelter supervisor in Elkton.

Having lived in Oregon most of his life, King said traveling from Sutherlin to Elkton felt like driving through a logging operation.

“There were as many trees down as standing,” he said. “That’s the image I hold. It’s devastating.”

When the storm pounded southern Oregon, knocking out power for over 30,000 homes, Oregon State Police said it blew down trees every 100 feet on highways 138 and 38 leading into Elkton. Creating an escape route for a town with a population of 198, plus 70 motorists, took 16 hours.

The American Red Cross arrived to set up a shelter in Elkton two days after the storm first hit on Sunday, Feb. 24.

“The Red Cross partners with local officials such as emergency managers in each county and depending on the county or nature of the storm, we could be there hours or days after the event,” King said. “In Douglas County, we were opening shelters Monday following the storm or Tuesday.”

Ninety percent of its workforce comes from volunteers, leaving 10 percent paid staff. When a disaster occurs, a network falls into place where county emergency managers call the Red Cross for help. Once the request is made, the network is created via phone tree with volunteers to see who is available. The calls start with volunteers nearby and move outward.

According to King, volunteers at the Elkton shelter have come from as far as Washington state.

Since opening the shelter as a warming and community center, it serves three meals a day and offers overnight lodging. King said it saw its highest volume of people for dinner one evening, counting as many as 143 people.

“People are usually going home to hunker down,” he said. “It’s not a typical shelter where people make the shelter their home for the next few weeks. It’s not the usual hurricane or fire based shelter where they may not have a home where they can return.”

For those using the shelter for meals or overnight stays, shower and laundry facilities are also available. The Elkton School District is running on two generators, while the Elkton Baptist Church has brought in a laundry and shower trailer.

“When people come in to use the shelter, first of all everyone is welcome,” King said. “We take minimal information to identify them. If they stay overnight, they are assigned cots. If they are here for meals, they come around the meal periods and sign in.”

Volunteer Elwayne Young carries a basket of laundry Thursday night into a Southern Baptist Disaster Relief trailer at an American Red Cross sh…

Right now, breakfast is being served at 8 a.m., lunch at 12 p.m. and dinner at 6 p.m. The shelter itself is open 24 hours a day.

“We will be here until the community demonstrates there’s no further need for us,” King said. “We’re in no big hurry to close.”

Four volunteers are helping run the shelter out of the Elkton High School gymnasium, working in shifts and staffing heavily during the active periods which is around meal times. During the night, one or two volunteers remain.

“We rotate out after 10 to 14 days of deployment,” King said. “We try to give them a day off about mid-week.”

In fact, King arrived on Wednesday, March 6, to replace the shelter supervisor who had been here since it first opened.

However, since stepping into his new role, he said he has witnessed a town enjoying each other’s company rather than a town suffering from a disaster.

“You wouldn’t have known by listening that these 70-some-odd people having dinner together that they’ve been without power since the 24th,” he said. “They were laughing and bonding. It looked like a Sunday church social. That speaks not only to the community, but that they care for each other. To some degree it speaks to the fact that these folks were already prepared and are just weathering the storm.”

The City of Elkton sat in the dark for 10 days. However, Douglas Electric Cooperative made the announcement Thursday evening that “a creative engineering solution brought the lights back on in the city of Elkton.”

“The crews continue to construct a transmission line to Elkton, at which point the outskirts can be addressed,” the release said. “In the meantime, crews are working on those areas so they can be prepared for when the power starts flowing through the new line.”

Jodi Miller of Elkton carries jugs of water after filling them Tuesday at an American Red Cross shelter at Elkton High School. Miller, who liv…

As of Thursday evening, 2,954 are still without power. DEC has begun the process to address individual outages, though restoration time depends on the severity of the damage.

But DEC has been working in overdrive since the storm turned off the lights, threw down power lines and cut off road access. For Todd Munsey, member services employee with DEC, his day begins at 5:30 a.m. and has since Feb. 24.

“Some crews are brought in at 6 a.m., we give them a breakfast burrito, a sack lunch, and then they’re on their way loaded with supplies for the day,” Munsey said. “But we are seeing some weariness.”

These crews are working 18 hour shifts and getting six hours of rest.

Linesman work Tuesday on power pole along U.S. Highway 38 that snapped during a Feb. 24 storm that left 30,000 homes without power.

“In some cases, we are making them go home to rest because they want to stay out there working,” Munsey said. “Safety is our worry. We see the fatigue and want to be cognizant of that and make sure it doesn’t lead to someone getting hurt in this process.”

DEC ordinarily has 34 employees, half of which are line crew. Since the power went out after the storm, over 100 are working to turn the lights back on.

“We’ve got more than twice as many contract crew members working alongside our line crews to get this done,” he said. “We’ve fractured our guys to have one of them with a contract crew to show them where to go and give directions in our service territory. It’s working darn well. Our guys are rocking it out there.”

But the work is hard. Even in sunny conditions, parts of the DEC territory are tough to access without having to worry about hiking through two and a half feet of snow.

“It’s all intense,” Munsey said. “But these guys are focused and efficient.”

When asked if DEC could have done anything to better prepare for this storm, Munsey said they prepare every day.

“We spend millions of dollars a year on the right of way,” he said. “We clear bush as much as we can from the lines. Some folks don’t like it, but we cut trees down instead of trim them. We have a robust right of way program.”

Not only that, but DEC just finished rebuilding a tremendous amount of its line going to and from Elkton.

“We just rebuilt that,” Munsey said. “Those were brand new lines in a lot of the areas and now it’s trashed. Officially, this is a multi-million dollar storm.”

Because Douglas County declared a state of emergency, it opened the doors to possible FEMA funds to help pay for these repairs. The application to get those funds must be submitted by March 16.

If FEMA funds aren’t approved, whatever portion of the expenses that aren’t reimbursed falls to DEC members through rate increases.

Though nothing could have been done to lessen the storm damage, Munsey said how DEC responded might be improved.

Before the storm hit, DEC was looking at moving the Yoncalla crews to Elkton to improve coverage when repairs are needed. Otherwise, Munsey is confident in the leadership from DEC’s new general manager, Keith Brooks. According to Munsey, this is Brooks’ third FEMA event.

Power poles and lines lay beneath fallen trees along U.S. Highway 38 south of Elkton. A Feb. 24 storm brought heavy, wet snow and wind that do…

“He has some experience and ideas and I couldn’t be happier that our new general manager is as engaged as he is,” Munsey said. “This could have been a zoo, where people may have been running into each other, but this process has been working extremely well.”

Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Reporter Jillian Ward can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 235, or by email at jillian.ward@theworldlink.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JE_Wardwriter.