Hermiston residents trying to get home from the Tri-Cities had a harrowing experience Saturday after white-out conditions and a multi-vehicle pile-up stranded hundreds of drivers on Interstate 82.
Mackenzie Colgan left work at about 2:45 p.m. and didn’t get home until 11:30 p.m.
“Longest trip home from the Tri-Cities ever,” she said. “It was terrifying.”
Washington State Department of Transportation declared Interstate 82 closed about 2:30 p.m. but Colgan said there were no signs up to warn her when she got on the Interstate in Kennewick and started following a semitrailer crawling ts way through the snow storm. About 15 minutes, later the semi hit its brakes and she swerved into the shoulder to avoid it.
“Once we stopped we didn’t move again until 10 p.m.,” she said.
Colgan said one of her best friends, Destiny George, turned out to also be stranded less than half a mile ahead, so they stayed on the phone most of the time to keep each other company. Luckily, both of them had enough gas in their tanks to keep their cars idling and the heat on through the whole ordeal, but Colgan said she did get hungry.
“I was thinking, my dad is going to be mad at me because I didn’t have any food or water with me,” she said. “But I did have blankets and my snow boots and a heavy coat.”
She also said she learned her lesson about keeping snacks and water in the car, and about always checking to see if the roads are closed before setting out.
Oregon State Police Sgt. Seth Cooney said he was out that day with a rash of crashes on Interstate 84 west of Boardman and stopped into the Love’s Travel Stop in the town. Folks there inundated him with questions on how to get to where they wanted to go.
“The first thing I tell everybody is look up Trip Check,” he said, referring to www.tripcheck.com, which the Oregon Department of Transportation uses to provide information about road conditions and closures. “They really need to take a look at that, because ODOT is very good about keeping it up to date.”
For travelers without internet access, they can also dial 511 on their phones to listen to updates..
Cooney also suggested drivers plan for alternate routes. With I-82 shut down, he said, you could take Highway 730 east to Highway 12 to Pasco. He said road crews do a good job of keeping that route open.
“Those are the two biggest things — look at the road conditions and look for an alternate route,” he said.
Cooney added if you don’t have to travel in this weather, don’t.
Jaymie Hathaway, another Hermiston resident stranded Saturday, said she learned not to travel at all during a blizzard if it isn’t an emergency.
Hathaway had gone up to the Tri-Cities to purchase a van. Her father, Brad Hathaway, drove her up, and offered to drive the van on the way back because it would be less reliable in the snow than his SUV. They got on the road about 2 p.m.
Hathaway said they had made it just past Coffin Road when people started hitting their brakes. After she stopped, she said, two pick-up trucks slid around her and her dad managed to stop sliding just feet behind her.
“I was just waiting for the impact,” she said. “I was so scared.”
The van didn’t have much gas in it, Hathaway said, so her dad turned it off and got in the SUV with her as they watched that gas gauge creep farther below a quarter tank.
About 8:30 p.m. a group of cars in front of them were given the OK to start moving, and everyone cleared off their windshields and re-started their cars. Hathaway said she was at the head of the line for the second batch of cars that was let through.
“So many times I couldn’t see anything,” she said. “It was just pure white. I just kept going straight and hoping I was on the road.”
She stopped at a gas station as soon as she hit Umatilla, and said she would encourage everyone to fill up their tank any time they’re heading out in bad weather.
While all the stranded travelers were off the interstate before midnight, the road did not open again until Sunday afternoon.
The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning Monday for a swath from outside Fossil to Pendleton and covering the rest of northeast Oregon. That warning means “severe winter weather conditions will make travel very hazardous or impossible.”
Forecaster Rob Brooks with the federal agency said back-to-back winter storms are covering the region, with one heading north toward the Tri-Cities. That could provide a break in snowfall Thursday, but the next weather system moves in Friday with more snow.
“This could possibly last all the way up to (the next) Wednesday,” he said.
That would be Feb. 20, more than a week away.
Some area school districts shut down Monday and Tuesday. Hermiston School District had school on Monday, but canceled school on Tuesday.
School district administrators are each in charge of making the decision for their own school district about whether to cancel or delay school. Hermiston School District makes the decision after consulting with bus drivers from their contractor Mid-Columbia Bus Company, which sends buses out late at night or early in the morning to test the roads and report back to the district about conditions.
David Marshall, HSD human resources director, told the Hermiston city council Monday that while a snow day can be a fun day for some families, the district is also aware that they have many parents in the district who have to sacrifice a day of pay to care for their children or scramble to make other arrangements on snow days.