The snowstorm slows the community to a crawl and keeps snow plow operators, emergency service personnel busy nonstop

LON AUSTIN - Homes and vehicles are still buried under nearly 2 feet of snow.

It's not uncommon when cities in the Willamette Valley get hit with a snowstorm to see them essentially shut down.

Typically, Prineville and other communities east of the Cascades that deal more regularly with snow during the winter manage to move forward despite the snowfall, perhaps closing school or government offices in cases of severe storms.

But this past week was not typical.

Monday morning after nearly a foot of snow laid on the ground and more continued to fall at a rapid rate, more than just the schools decided to stay closed for the day or to close early. Meanwhile, drivers struggled so mightily to navigate the snowy roads that law enforcement officials urged people to stay home unless they absolutely had to drive somewhere.

So while Prineville didn't shut down earlier this week, it came close.

Crook County School District canceled school Monday, the first of four consecutive days that kids and educators would get to stay home. All state offices in Crook County closed Monday, including the circuit courts, and while Crook County offices and City Hall were open, both government entities elected to call it a day by early afternoon.

The county and city kept their doors open on Tuesday, but county meetings scheduled for the evening were canceled as snowfall returned that afternoon. Other events in town got postponed that day, including the "What's Brewing?" community forum scheduled for Wednesday and the Crook County High School Drama's presentation of "Radium Girls," which was slated to show Thursday through Saturday. The play was rescheduled for March 14-16.

Wednesday, Crook County chose to keep its office closed for the day as did state offices, while Prineville City Hall stayed open with normal hours.

Mixed in with the public sector closures, multiple businesses opted to stay closed or shorten their hours of operation.

"A lot of restaurants were closed," Kim Daniels, executive director of the Prineville-Crook County Chamber of Commerce, reported, adding that quite a few storefronts remained dark early in the week. "A bunch of businesses closed Monday and Tuesday."

St. Charles Health System limited its hours as well, with clinics closing early in multiple locations, including Family Care in Prineville.

Those businesses that did stay open seemed to reap the benefits. Daniels pointed out that Tastee Treet was bustling Monday, and due to the lack of open restaurants, grocery stores saw a surge in people looking for food.

Snow removal entrepreneurs likewise enjoyed a healthy dose of business as people throughout the community struggled to clear their driveways, sidewalks and rooftops.

But as busy as those business owners and employees were, it is all but certain that the people charged with plowing roads and responding to emergencies were busier. County Emergency Manager Michael Ryan, with Crook County Sheriff's Office, said that law enforcement responded to 145 calls for service on Monday alone and that the majority of those were associated with vehicle crashes and slide-offs or motorist assists.

"The real problem I saw with all agencies, at least early on Monday, was there wasn't a lot of sand being put down (on the roads) because the snow was coming so fast," Ryan said. "You get a plowed surface but you can't see the defined road edges. It makes a condition where the edge of the road catches the tire if you get too far off to the right. It will suck you right off the road."

Prineville Police Sgt. James Peterson said that city police responded to four vehicle crashes that resulted in either vehicle or property damage Sunday and Monday.

"The biggest one was a grader that got stuck on the grade in the morning. It closed the highway for a couple hours," Peterson said. "Then we had two power poles that were struck, and one rear-end collision."

He added that the city agency responded to roughly 35 weather-related calls for service Sunday night through Monday afternoon, many of which involved digging out stuck vehicles. The agency was so busy that every person on shift, including the police chief, captain and sergeants, were out helping stranded drivers.

Even the vehicles used to help people weren't immune to the effects of the snowstorm. In addition to the grader crash, an ambulance slid off the road Monday. But as frequent as the crashes and slide-offs were during the biggest wave of the storm, Peterson reports that none resulted in injuries.

While emergency services personnel responded to multiple incidents, road crews from the state level to city-managed were working long shifts to keep roads as clear as possible. City Manager Steve Forrester said all of his public works crew, plus some of the municipality's administrators, took turns manning plows and sanders whenever the need arose — which was often.

"They started about midnight Monday and then worked all day to about 4 p.m. and then went home and started again at midnight," he said, adding that the work wrapped up about 10 a.m. Tuesday. They were back at it again later that afternoon when heavy snowfall returned.

Meanwhile, county road crews spent comparable hours keeping the main roads in Juniper Canyon and Powell Butte clear as well as highway 380 east of Paulina, also under county jurisdiction. Joining them on the roads were ODOT crews that worked continually to keep Highways 26, 126, 27 and 380 from getting buried.

While road crews worked around the clock, employees with Central Electric Co-op traversed Central Oregon, dealing with multiple power outages. According to a recorded telephone message that greeted callers to power company, hundreds of customers were affected at different times throughout the week.

"Trees bending under the weight of the heavy snowfall are gradually extending into and touching our power lines," the message stated.

As of Thursday morning, the winter storms had passed, although the 2 or more feet of snow in Prineville and Crook County will likely remain for at least a week as temperatures are not forecast to eclipse 40 degrees until midway through next week.

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