As Wallowa County heads into yet another snowstorm, the snow damage is mounting.
Reports of buildings partially or fully collapsing and houses being damaged are coming in to insurance agents across the county.
Kay Hunkapillar, president of Wheatland Insurance, said that they had about 18 collapse claims involving both residential and farm structures, and 21 water damage claims in Wallowa County as of Feb. 5.
Farmers Group Insurance agent Les Bridges of Wallowa said that he had six collapsed buildings reported.
“So far, thank God, none of them have been homes,” he said. “The damages are fairly significant. We had a building that collapsed on three cars, another that collapsed on a logging truck and another that collapsed on a log skidder.” Bridges said. “Our adjuster is a very busy boy right now.”
The building that collapsed on the skidder belongs to Mike Mahon of Wallowa.
“We’re going to have to take the building down,” Mahon said.
It was an all-steel building favored by farmers and ranchers in snow country. Generally steel roofs simply shed their snow, but this year many steel roofs never warmed sufficiently to allow the tiny bit of melt needed to start the snow sliding.
A most dramatic destruction is the 150-by-260 foot Jay Herbert Bates Mill planer building in Wallowa. It is not known which insurance agency covers the property. The entire building is a loss.
Another local rancher, Ken Nash of Enterprise, has also suffered a snowy “act of God.” A large hay barn he leases has come down and 150 elk are now chowing down every evening on his stored hay.
Wallowa County losses, however, pale in comparison to the snow damage reported in other counties. Malhuer County issued a State of Emergency on Jan. 11, reporting an estimated 100 structures with major damage in addition to flooding issues caused by ice dams on the Snake, Payette and Malheur rivers. By the time of the declaration no snow removal tools were available for purchase in the county as landowners scrambled to deal with the snow issues themselves.
U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden sought federal disaster aid for Malheur and “other Eastern Oregon counties” Jan. 26. A federal disaster declaration makes farmers and other businesses eligible for low-interest loans, insurance relief and other disaster aid.
Malheur County assessor Dave Ingram reported that, “Representative Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) organized a town hall meeting Feb. 2 with the Oregon Insurance Division, Oregon Construction Contractors Board, and state and local building codes staff to inform people what they need to do to make claims.
Ingram reported that the wreckage was much worse than had even been reported.
“Onion storage and packing buildings have been damaged all over the county,” he said. “I think the building owners are busy saving product and reporting the damage is down the line in their thought process.”
The cost of lost crops and business may far exceed the cost of lost buildings with estimates already running in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
In addition to ranchers and farmers simply being too busy saving crops to bother with damage reports right now, many residents of Eastern Oregon counties may simply not know their building has been damaged, yet. Some storage buildings are in inaccessible locations and haven’t been checked on and some are on summer home property with absentee owners.
Across the state line, the town of Weiser, Idaho in Washington County is also being cited as “the horror story” with 95 buildings reported damaged and a state of emergency declared.
Steve Lyon, editor of the Weiser Signal American, shared some of the stories from his city with the Chieftain.
“The snowfall has been unprecedented,” he said. “We’re looking at 35-40 inches in town. We lost our one and only bowling alley, and across the county there have been 95 buildings that have been damaged — lots of hay sheds and onion storage sheds.”
Lyon reported that although building codes rate roofs at 30 pounds per square foot of weight bearing, they found snow loads of 38 pounds per square foot on many buildings.
Snowfall in Wallowa County has been heavier still. John Duckworth of Wallowa, who operates an official NOAA weather station at his home, recorded over ^ feet of snow, 73 inches, by Feb. 5.
“There are 24 inches on the ground, despite settling,” Duckworth reported Friday. “And while it was raining in Enterprise on Friday it was snowing in Wallowa.”
Yet, Wallowa County has not yet seen the catastrophic countywide disasters that other Eastern Oregon and Western Idaho counties have. According to County Commissioner Susan Roberts, “We have not seen that extent of damage and likely will not.”
Nevertheless, there is cause for concern.
The snow damage potential is triple-fold, repeated snowfalls dump large quantities of snow and then partially melt and then top that icy wedge with more snow creating weight loads far heavier than snow alone.
The ice forming as snow melts and runs down the roof and then refreezes that causes ice dams on the eaves of roofs, leading to water backup behind the dam, which makes its way under shingles and begins leakage damage inside the house. Although the melt over the weekend took out many of those dams, the possibility of another buildup remains. Most surprising to ranchers, who have deliberately built their storage sheds with steel roofs so that the snow will slide off, the consistency of the snow combined with the below-freezing temperatures of the unheated buildings is creating a situation where the snow does not slide off the building as would be normal.
Wallowa County is still a long way from a state of emergency, according to County Commissioner Todd Nash, but residents are wisely on high alert and snow removal businesses are popping up everywhere to handle the accumulated snow.
Snow removal once the melt began on Saturday was also problematic due to the heavy accumulation. Cars were stuck in driveways and parking lots all over the county. The windstorm also brought down trees and powerlines with outages reported throughout the county.
Pacific Power lineman Chad Cooney of Joseph worked “pretty much all weekend and all night Sunday night,” and called for assistance from Pendleton on Monday morning to put up a power pole.
Wallowa Public Works Director Travis Goebel reported that attempting to clean the streets on Saturday, “almost broke the truck in half,” and Wallowa had to wait for natural melt to progress further.
In addition to contacting your landlord or insurance agent, landowners are encouraged to contact Wallowa County Assessor Randy Wortman by coming to Room 104 of the Courthouse in Enterprise where they can fill out an application for reappraisal and/or proration of property taxes. The effect of the reappraisal would allow the taxes to be prorated on the damaged portion. The application must be turned in within 60 days of the damage.
For more information contact the Assessor’s Office at 541-426-4543, ext. 150.
Numerous snow removal businesses are listing their services in the Wallowa County Free Classified. The Chieftain cannot vouch for the professionalism of any businesses listed.
Insurance agencies have advised the Chieftain that although walking on a frozen roof can cause damage in and of itself, it is usually far less concerning than the damage that could be cause by allowing ice dams to continue to build.