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Oregon Emergency Director To Visit Flooded Counties After Declining To Declare A Disaster

<p>Drone footage shows the extent of flooding.</p>

Courtesy of the City of Pendleton


Drone footage shows the extent of flooding.

Flooding has created a disaster in parts of Eastern Oregon, according to local and tribal government officials. State lawmakers representing the areas have implored Gov. Kate Brown since April 15 to declare a state of emergency, but so far they've been denied.

The director of the state’s Office of Emergency Management will be in Pendleton on Tuesday to assess the damage in Umatilla County. The visit comes a week after OEM director Andrew Phelps declined to recommend an emergency declaration to the governor’s office, according to Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, one of several elected officials who requested one.

Umatilla County declared a local state of emergency on April 10, due to flooding from rapid snowmelt and spring rains. The next day, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released water to ease pressure on McKay Dam, which doubled the rate of flow running through a creek in Pendleton. Bureau officials said at the time, “Minor flooding is expected in the backyards that are along McKay Creek.” But Umatilla County Commissioner John Schafer said the reality was far worse.

“We're getting reports of people having 18 inches of water in their basements,” Schafer said. “One house was knocked off its foundation … These people's lives are turned upside down right now, and then to be told it's not an emergency — it's pretty devastating to hear.”

He described pumps and industrial fans running in the aftermath of the Pendleton floods, as dumpsters provided by the city filled up with debris and rolls of ruined carpet. A nursing home in Pendleton remains evacuated; its residents bunked up at another facility. In Umatilla, Schafer said a footbridge was washed away and could cost millions to replace.

There is no comprehensive assessment of the damage in Eastern Oregon yet, something OEM spokeswoman Paula Negele said the agency needs to review before it would decide on issuing a disaster declaration.

“There would have to be significant damage to homes and businesses, and we are in the middle of collecting that information,” Negele said.

OEM has provided Umatilla and other counties with technical assistance throughout the floods to help emergency personnel respond and keep the public informed.

“They haven’t asked for anything specific we haven't been able to provide, yet,” Negele said.

But, two state lawmakers backed the request for an emergency declaration in Umatilla and Wallowa counties to open up more state and federal funding to pay for the flood’s aftermath.

Kate Kondayen, a spokeswoman from Brown’s office, said the governor is tracking the situation to see if it rises to the level of an emergency. 

“An emergency declaration is a case by case analysis based on the statute," Kondayen said in an email. "Factors include: death, injuries, level of damage/flooding, and if the local jurisdiction utilized all other alternatives. The governor’s office will continue to track the after effects and how best to support the community, both via state agency updates and direct contact with local officials.”

Last week, the East Oregonian reported on a community meeting April 17 attended by more than 100 people in Pendleton, many with critical questions about how the Bureau of Reclamation operates McKay Dam.

Negele stressed that many Oregon counties have struggled with flooding this spring.

Umatilla County has until April 30 to provide OEM with an assessment of damage to its public infrastructure and private properties.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Emily Cureton Cook is OPB’s Central Oregon Bureau Chief. She's the former producer of the Jefferson Exchange on JPR and has contributed award-winning programming to Georgia Public Broadcasting. Emily is a graduate of the University of Texas in Austin where she earned degrees in history, studio art and Russian.