Pulverized by Snowstorm, East County ‘All Hands on Deck’



Fueled by diesel engines, elbow grease and ingenuity, the communities of East Lewis County began to dig out Wednesday, following a snowstorm that left thousands of residents without power, communication or transportation.

The scenes in the region Wednesday were stark — a massive snowplow disabled and leaning off the roadside, a house flattened by the weight of snow and splintered trees down along nearly every mile of road. Amid all that, with a state of emergency declared in the county, an army of state agencies, local crews and private citizens fanned out into the mountainous terrain that has been pummeled with snow for days on end.

“It has literally been all hands on deck — and then some,” said Bryan Watt, operations manager with the Lewis County Public Utility District.

With many routes closed to passenger vehicles, the roads of East County were tracked by workers from an alphabet soup of state and local agencies. Washington State Department of Transportation plow trucks cleared snow alongside Lewis County Public Works road graders, crossing paths with PUD bucket trucks on roads watched over by Washington State Patrol.

In Morton, local volunteers with shovels and a tractor dug out a buried police car downtown. Fire District members in Mineral walked around checking on residents and shoveling out driveways. Seemingly everyone with a plow, shovel, ATV or pickup truck was out doing what they could.

“It could have been a lot worse, and the reason it wasn't worse is because of the type of communities we have here in Morton and Mossyrock,” said Morton Police Chief Roger Morningstar. “They just come out to help. … The lack of serious issues is a credit to our community.”

The storm that brought heavy snow to the area Tuesday hit hard and fast, bringing conditions that many longtime residents said were the worst they’ve ever seen. Wet, heavy snow brought down a massive numbers of trees, along with plenty of power lines. On Tuesday, power was out from Mossyrock to the east end of the county — about half of Lewis County’s geographical area. At the apex of the outage, more than 9,000 households were without power. Most telephone connections were out as well, and roads quickly become impassable.

On state Route 7 between Morton and Elbe, conditions degenerated quickly, with downed trees and spun-out semi trucks trapping a mile-long line of motorists for hours on end. Eventually, crews were able to clear a path and bring everyone to safety, but the road remained closed to passenger travel most of Wednesday.

“There was so much snow so fast, it created absolute havoc up there,” said Washington State Patrol Trooper Will Finn. “It was really overwhelming for the troopers up there yesterday. … It wa a pretty hairy situation.”

By Wednesday afternoon, route 7 was in better shape, with WSDOT, Public Works and PUD vehicles working along the road. The road was blocked for awhile as crews worked to clear a WSDOT snowplow that had careened into a snowbank and veered off the road. Jim Gerwig, a maintenance supervisor for the agency, said the state was hoping to get the road cleared Wednesday afternoon, before turning its focus to route 508, which remained impassable.

“There’s so much tree debris, it’s mostly one lane weaving in and out,” he said.

In Mineral, residents had been stranded for almost a day with the closure of route 7, and the power had been out for nearly 36 hours before returning Wednesday morning. Many residents were seen filling up fuel tanks at the Mineral Market to keep their generators powered.

Fire District 9 lieutenant Terry Boyet said responders in Mineral had been conducting wellness checks, shoveling snow and maintaining a community presence.

“We’ve been on call 24 hours (a day),” he said. “With the phone lines being down, we’ve manned the station since Sunday.”

One house in Mineral collapsed under the weight of the snow, but thankfully it proved to be unoccupied. The fire station has remained open to the community, with a generator providing heat, as well as electricity for those with medical devices that need it. Residents were helping each other dig out and checking on vulnerable community members, knowing that Mineral was isolated from outside help.

“Everybody pretty much takes care of everybody around here,” said Mineral Market owner Chantell Suter.

That pitch-in spirit has been evident among official work crews as well. The PUD has received aid from utility crews in Cowlitz, Grays Harbor and Pacific counties. Its own crews have been putting in 30-hour shifts, trying to restore power. It’s taken extreme measures to get to many of the downed lines, with many roads remaining impassable.

“We had snow machines running yesterday, patrolling lines we have no access to,” Watt said. “We actually used snowshoes to get to one tower. That might have made history for us.”

By Wednesday evening, much of the power to East County had been restored, with just more than 700 customers still without power. Many of those may take some time to fix, as the utility’s focus has been on primary transmission lines. House-by-house outages will be a painstaking project, and the PUD is expecting plenty of phone calls as residents notice their neighbor’s lights have come back on.

“We’ve still got a lot of line down,” said communications liaison Cory Moses. “We have our biggest populaces up and running, but we need to hear from people if they are without power. It helps us to be able to better find exactly where we need to be targeting.”

The work that’s been done so far has given PUD leaders a lot of admiration for their workforce.

“Our employees pride themselves quite a bit on restoring power county-wide, and it’s really shown,” said Watt. “Pretty much every resource that we have that could be usable is in Morton.”

Meanwhile, law enforcement has become a jack-of-all-trades position. Morningstar said his force has been conducting welfare checks, shoveling out residents, shuttling city employees to work and posting updates on road and power conditions.

Many auxiliary officers have pitched in to help, and the department’s full-timers are working overtime. The department’s Hummer has been a “lifesaver,” allowing officers to get around town in conditions that might have stuck standard police cars. On Tuesday, conditions were so bad at one point that even the Hummer had to be abandoned.

“The snow made it almost impossible to get around town,” Morningstar said. “I was actually foot patrolling areas, because I didn't want to risk getting the Hummer stuck. At one point, the snow was up to almost my waist.”

As hints of blue sky peaked out Wednesday afternoon, nearly every block of sidewalk in Morton featured residents wielding shovels and digging out. A Morton Police vehicle buried in snow drew half a dozen or so shovelers, along with a tractor, as Morningstar guided traffic. Across the street, a pair of volunteers flung snow off the roof of the Fire District 4 building.

As power and phone service came back to parts of East County Wednesday, and roads began to clear, agencies were hoping to get a reprieve for the workers who have been putting in many sleepless hours to restore service. Rain and possible snow is expected as the week continues, so it’s possible the region’s problems aren’t over. But the residents of the area’s mountain communities will be back at it with their shovels and chainsaws if Mother Nature strikes again.