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When Disaster Struck, This Tiny Oregon Town Was On Its Own

April Ehrlich | JPR
Elkton didn't have electricity nine days after a winter storm, and only one store was open.

Outside the remote town of Elkton, Oregon, the Cisco family’s four small dogs are bundled in puffy jackets. So is the family of three elderly sisters and their niece. You can see their breath when they speak.

The Cisco’s manufactured home hasn’t had electricity since a winter storm struck more than a week ago. Their pressure tank runs on electricity, so they also don’t have running water.

Despite the cold, their niece, Wynona Vosburgh, is grateful the snow has stuck around.

The Cisco Family

“I go out and get snow for the toilets and to wash dishes,” Vosburgh said.

But the snow is melting, and they don’t expect to get electricity for another two weeks. Their only heat source is a portable propane heater. Volunteer firefighter Ryan Fall gave the family the heater. He has also watched their dogs so they could spend a night at the warming shelter, which doesn’t allow pets.

The Ciscos aren’t the only ones in the dark. Thousands of other people in rural Douglas County haven’t had electricity since a winter storm hit Southern Oregon. And while many parts of this region have had power restored since then, its most rural areas are lagging behind.

Back at the Elkton City Hall, an electric generator buzzes as Fall remembers the night of the storm.

“Trees started falling all around us,” he said. “We were trying to get the vehicles out. It sounded like things were exploding.”

Credit April Ehrlich | JPR
A severe winter storm caused hundreds of trees to collapse around homes in rural Douglas County.

That was the sound of 30-foot Douglas Firs tearing from the earth and crashing to the ground, blocking all roads leading out of Elkton by about two miles. The town lost all communication. That meant no cell service, no internet, no calling 911 for help. Elkton was basically on its own.

“Everybody was going around, getting people out, checking on their welfare,” Fall said. “That’s what really made the difference. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

People driving through Elkton that night were stuck for two days before a road was cleared. Some spent the night in their cars, others stayed at the local church, which opened late that night to provide heat and food to people who needed it. The American Red Cross set up at the high school, but not until the following Saturday — nearly a week after the storm.

By day nine, one shop opened its doors. The Elkton Food Center got a generator to power a till and a coffee maker.  Shopkeeper Aaron Van Loon says he wished help arrived sooner.

“Portland had a foot of snow a year or so back,” Van Loon  said. “The day after the governor declares a state of emergency. Here we waited until Thursday — four days after the fact — before that happened here in measley Douglas County.”

A lot of people in Douglas County are bitter about the time it took the state to respond. And Elkton Mayor Dan Burke says when disasters strike, rural areas are the ones that need the most help.

Credit April Ehrlich | JPR
A hay storage facility outside Drain was totally destroyed in the storm, killing five cattle.

“Rural communities don't have a lot of the resources you see in the urban areas,” Burke said. “For a power company and for communications companies to take the burden of an event like this... It wasn’t just a snow storm. It was much, much more than that.”

Burke guesses it will take millions of dollars to repair the sewer and water systems for this town of 200 people. And the local utility company, Douglas Electric Cooperative, is looking at about $6 million in damages.

Nine days after the storm, about 4,600 of its customers didn’t have electricity. That’s a stark contrast to Pacific Power, which had power restored in its part of the county a lot sooner. Todd Munsey of Douglas Electric says that’s because of the areas they serve.

“Our service territories couldn't be any more different,” Munsey said. “When Pacific [Power] brings a section on, they're bringing on a neighborhood or city blocks. When we’re bringing on a section, we’re bringing on maybe six residents who live around Loon Lake.”

Credit April Ehrlich | JPR
A lineman restores wires along Oregon 38 between Drain and Elkton.

But Munsey says it’s getting a lot of help; hundreds of linemen from across the state are rebuilding half its system and repairing the rest.

As for Elkton, firefighter Ryan Fall says his town has a learned a lot from this storm.

“We’re going to be going back over plans so we could be a lot more prepared and take advantage of the momentum to get people to participate,” Fall said.

But it’s too soon for that. He’s mostly focused on clearing wood debris from people’s yards, or helping them with dysfunctional space heaters, or watching their dogs so they could spend at least one night in a warm place.

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a news host and reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.