Snow is the enemy in Weiser.
Storms rolling into this Southwest Idaho town on the Oregon border this month crushed roofs, knocked out a bowling alley and smashed the city’s only grocery store. Children couldn’t attend schools for half the month. Snow piled up on city streets, making icy ruts that led to treacherous driving conditions.
Gov. Butch Otter declared Weiser a disaster area and crews spent last week hauling away hundreds of dump-truck loads of snow, starting to return those roads to normal.
Weiser also saw friends and strangers helping each other, saving a business owner’s inventory and digging out a pregnant woman’s truck so she could get to the hospital.
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People who come to Weiser only for its famous summer fiddle festival would have hardly recognized the place choked in winter’s white last week.
▪ Snow was piled more than 5 feet high at some intersections.
▪ A man on the roof of a Mormon church was using a motorized blower to spit snow to the ground.
▪ A tow truck tried to budge a stuck flatbed truck that was outfitted with chains.
Snow turned Weiser residents such as 63-year-old Curly Baker into shoveling machines.
“Friday I spent seven hours working like a crazy man,” he said. “Saturday I spent seven hours. Sunday, three hours.”
Disaster services officials plan to bring in a structural engineer to look at Weiser buildings and determine their soundness.
In his 50-plus years in Weiser, Baker said, he has never seen anything like the storms of 2017 that pelted the city over the past month.
“I’ve heard some people say ‘Oh, we had this before.’ ... No. Not like this,”said Baker, as he employed a wide broom in hopes of pushing snow melt into the street and down a storm drain. “I’m trying to keep somebody from slipping and falling.”
The city and Washington County do not have an official number for the amount of snow that has fallen on Weiser since late December, and neither does the National Weather Service.
Baker measured with a yardstick after every snowfall. “Fifty-four inches,” he said. “And I’m on the conservative side.”
The Weather Service visited Weiser after the storm and gathered data and social media reports to estimate that the snowfall total had been about 45 inches.
There are ways to measure the Weiser snowstorm other than with a yardstick.
Weiser, population 5,300, budgets $9,000 a year for snow removal labor. In 2014, it spent just over $800. In 2015, the city paid nothing. In 2016, it used all $9,000. And from this month’s storms alone, Weiser faces an estimated $65,000 in snow removal bills, more than seven times its entire snow budget. Much of that cost could be reimbursed, thanks to Gov. Butch Otter’s declaration of an emergency last week for Washington County.
In Weiser, people ventured out to shovel, get a bit of fresh air and make occasional trips to get food. That’s been about the extent of travel. Many have stayed inside for days. One resident told Steve Penner, Washington County Disaster Services spokesman, that the snow is so high, it cut the view out of her window.
Not everyone stayed inside. Mandy Lee’s baby decided, somewhat unexpectedly, that it was time to be born. Just one problem: Her truck was snowed in. “I was stuck,” Lee said.
“Do you need to go to the hospital?” a friend asked. “Oh, yeah,” Mandy said. “I need to go to the hospital. My water broke.”
Her husband and the friend went to work, and nearly three hours later Lee and the truck were on the way to the hospital. Lee had a C-section, and mother and baby are doing well.
We’ve had a lot of citizens trapped in their homes ... since this last big storm hit just because city services are so strapped they can’t can get into those neighborhoods.
Patrick Nauman, part-owner of Weiser Classic Candy
Businesses say the snow has made sales spotty.
Gary Howard, who owns the Homestead Cafe in Weiser, does a pretty good breakfast business. But he couldn’t sell smoked prime rib, a house specialty.
“Right now, the smoker is snowed in,” he said.
At Matthews Grain and Feed on Commercial Street near the downtown, business has been uneven.
“On the days things are little bit more clean, we will have really, really busy days,” said Patti Matthews, whose husband Seth opened the opened the business in 1977. “When the snow is really bad and people can’t get around, they are slow days for us.”
93 Buildings reported destroyed or damaged from the storms in Washington County
Matthews Grain and Feed’s main building was constructed in 1897 and served in its past as a saloon. When the snow hit, that old brick building withstood it. But the Matthews’ lost two storage sheds to the snow — one built with steel I-beams.
That’s scary, Patti said.
“We were shoveling that roof off several times” before the building went down.
“We can’t keep up, and everyone is exhausted at this point, which I believe is the reason for them declaring the state of emergency,” she said. “I think it is great because we need some help.”
Snow or no, lending a hand
People in Weiser, however, refused to buckle. They’ve been helping out however they can.
Ken Avant, manager of Picker’s Paradise, Weiser’s only music store, faced a huge problem. Nearly 50 guitars were stored in the attic of his business at 440 State Street, and water from a leaky roof begin pouring in over the boxes of his inventory.
Tom Roberts, a Ukranian Orthodox priest who lives in Weiser, happened into the store, saw the problem and quickly lent a hand. Before long a group of people were aiding Avant, handing down guitars in a human chain from the attic.
“There was just a river running down the staircase,” Roberts said.
Avant’s inventory was saved.
“That is what is great about this town,” he said. “People care about each other.”
Roberts and his family have offered help to a lot of people during this bleak winter. They’ve pushed cars out of the snow and run small errands for people.
“(Weiser people) are known to be a little cliquish to outsiders,” Roberts said. “But boy, if you need anything, we’re right there to help you.”
Signs of recovery
Several days after the last big storm hit, Weiser is starting to recover.
The Napa Auto Parts store on State Street, closed for four days after cracks appeared in a window sill and creaking sounds were coming from the building, is back in business after the building was determined to be sound, said manager Michael Shaw.
“We’re back taking care of customers,” Shaw said.
After girding itself for storm after storm, the city now might have to gird itself again as the snow melts.
“I don’t think I’ve seen this big an accumulation of snow,” said Diana Thomas, Weiser mayor. “We are concerned about flooding of houses because we’ve got all of this snow that is shoveled off of roofs and buildings. How do they haul it away from their homes so when it melts it doesn’t flood their homes?”
Curly Baker, the Weiser weather watcher who spent hours getting snow off his roof and walks, is worried too as he surveys the 4-plus feet of snow banked up in his front yard.
“I’m concerned that it will go into the foundation,” he said. “I’m going to get around the house and shovel.”
Bill Roberts: 208-377-6408, @IDS_BillRobert
▪ After initial reports of 100 buildings destroyed, state emergency management officials report 35 destroyed and 58 partially damaged buildings in Washington County
▪ Crews removed snow from Weiser’s streets last week by working three shifts a day and hauling away snow in a convoy of 14 dump trucks. Gov. Butch Otter’s disaster declaration for Washington County made available $65,000 that Weiser needed to truck the snow away.
▪ After the Ridley’s grocery store roof collapse, BiMart pharmacy in Weiser is refilling prescriptions for affected customers.
▪ Ridley’s in Middleton is providing free delivery of groceries to people in Weiser. A $30 minimum purchase is required.
▪ Weiser Memorial Hospital will let Ridley’s move temporarily into a building that had been earmarked for hospital offices until it can get the store rebuilt. It might be three weeks before Ridley’s can open in its temporary quarters.
▪ Idaho Foodbank handed out 23,000 pounds of food to Weiser residents last week.
.▪ Payette County was declared an emergency disaster area Wednesday by Otter. Payette emergency managements officials don’t have an official count on the number of buildings damaged but they include commercial, agricultural, manufacturing and residential structures. If you have damages, let them know.
▪ Payette County is looking for volunteers to help residents with tasks. Call 208-642-6004 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
▪ In eastern Oregon and Southwest Idaho, at least 18 onion storage and packing facilities fell victim to the snow.
▪ Lists of the hundreds of buildings damaged in the storm are being compiled by Tri-County Love INC, a Christian nonprofit. Its executive director is keeping the database of structures that have caved in, collapsed or been damaged.
▪ Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley asked federal authorities for a federal disaster declaration to help snow-hit farmers and businesses in Malhuer and other eastern Oregon counties.
▪ Estimated cost of the storm damage in the Treasure Valley: $25 million and growing.
Settling snow still heavy snow
The snow that is damaging buildings is wet and heavy but might not appear that way.
“We’re ending up with snow loads on roofs that we typically don’t see around here,” said Troy Lindquist of the National Weather Service.
Settling snow does not look as substantial because it’s not as deep, and can fool building owners about the weight that’s pressing on shingles and tiles.
But experts say the water density increases it settles, meaning a roof that that does not appear to be holding much powder can be straining under thousands of pounds.
“They may look at the roof and say, ‘There’s not as much snow there because it settled,’ ” said Ron Abramovich, a water supply specialist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service who analyzes snowpack. “But it really comes down to the amount of water in the snowpack.”
Abramovich said 20 inches of snow can weigh about 10 pounds per square foot. That means a 20-by-20-foot roof would be supporting about 4,000 pounds.
The Associated Press