NCW — Snow covered North Central Washington in unprecedented fashion last week, stretching the region’s resources to their limits. Now what?
“Overall, the effect is still being felt,” said Sgt. Jason Reinfeld with Chelan County Emergency Management. “The road departments are still working on clearing off roads. One of the major issues is a lot of the non-primary traveled areas may only have one-lane access at this time.
“So public works, as far as (Chelan County) is concerned, they’re going to be working on opening up roadways all week before they can get back to normal operations.”
Between Wednesday and Thursday morning, 2 feet of snow fell on the Wenatchee Valley and close to 3 feet fell in Leavenworth — though there were reports of 4 feet in some areas — prompting city officials to declare a state of emergency.
Some people who live “off the beaten path” or at the end of long driveways, in particular residents of Leavenworth and Lake Wenatchee, are still having problems getting in or out of their property.
“There’s so much snow there’s not really a place to put it all,” Reinfeld said. “And a plow on the front of a truck might not necessarily be enough to move the snow.”
Chief Brian Brett, leader of the two Wenatchee Valley fire districts, said the districts were “up-staffed” last week with a rescue vehicle before and during the snowstorm.
“We up-staffed them so they could be more agile and get around the snow banks et cetera to run our medical calls that were in that response zone,” Brett said.
On fire calls, the rescue vehicles would’ve been tasked with digging out fire hydrants, but there was never a need to break out the shovels.
“There wasn’t a working fire that we had to dig one out on, fortunately,” Brett said. He added that crews have cleared out some fire hydrants deemed most critical.
He saw four call types increase because of the storm: vehicle collisions, falls that resulted in injury, cold exposure and malfunctioning fire suppression systems, which can freeze and break in cold weather.
Douglas County Sheriff Kevin Morris said the storm initially created problems with accessibility — so much so that the agency immediately brought out its side-by-side with tracks to help free vehicles stuck in the snow, including a patrol car.
But the county’s most challenging weather was Friday when winds and snow drifts on the Waterville Plateau caused zero visibility on roadways, leaving a semi truck, passenger car and a Douglas County deputy stuck. Officials closed Highway 172 and several county roads and helped the stranded motorists. The roads were reopened Saturday morning.
“It’s pretty dangerous when you’re talking about some of those temps,” Morris said. Adding, “If somebody gets stuck and doesn’t have cell service, you know, they could be up there for quite a while … and we may not even know it.”
He continued, “The people that did get stuck, we were able to get the information out so we could get to them one way, shape or form.”
In Chelan County, Reinfeld said he hadn’t heard of any deaths or serious injuries related to the snow, though one person escaped injury after becoming buried by snow that slid off a roof in Leavenworth and a rare avalanche in Entiat caused significant damage to a home along Highway 97/A, but left its occupant unharmed.
Brett noted he’s not aware of any structure collapses, and speculated that’s due to the winter of 1996 and a 2007 wind storm. “We seem to have eradicated ourselves of vulnerable buildings and trees,” he said.
Highs are expected to be in the mid- to high-30s most of the week in Wenatchee, peaking Thursday at 41 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Rain and highs from 39-41 degrees are forecasted Tuesday and Wednesday in Leavenworth.
Asked to consider his concerns for the near future, Brett pointed to the valley’s 4,000 fire hydrants, many of which are under snow. He asked residents to clear out hydrants near their home.
He also said that emergency response times will likely be affected by bottlenecked traffic caused by narrow or reduced lanes.
“With the normal traffic congestion we have in this town it’s challenging for us to respond through and now it’s really choked up,” Brett said. “The drivers don’t have much options for getting out of our way.”
Reinfeld said residents should be cautious of sliding snow when walking around the eaves of their homes and asked the public to avoid driving on narrow or heavily snow-covered roads unless absolutely necessary.
Colder temperatures are forecasted on the Waterville Plateau with highs in the low 30s throughout the week. Bridgeport is expected to see temperatures similar to Wenatchee.
As a precaution, Morris advised residents who’ve experienced flooding problems in the past to prepare for possible flooding.
WENATCHEE — When Steve Wright signed on as general manager of the Chelan County PUD, he didn’t expect the position to be long term.
“I liked it — that simple,” he said. “The work was fun, but even more important, the thing that drives me is doing meaningful and important work that makes a difference in people’s lives.”
But eight years later, he’s saying a bittersweet goodbye. Wright stepped down from the post at the end of 2021. Kirk Hudson, who has two decades of experience with the PUD, took his place.
Before coming to the PUD, Wright worked in California, Oregon and Washington, D.C., with a big chunk of his career focusing on Columbia River issues, especially hydropower.
So when a PUD recruiter approached Wright about the job, it seemed like it could be a perfect fit. He decided to drive up to Wenatchee and see what the area had to offer for himself.
“I remember coming up and seeing the Rock Island Dam and my heart going pitter patter,” Wright said. “I put it altogether and said, ‘This seems like a good place.’”
The area seemed to satisfy both Wright’s personal interests, such as a love for the outdoors, with what he wanted next out of his career. He said he had always enjoyed being a part of public power and had missed being accountable for decisions after transitioning to consulting.
That longing carried over to how he approached the role after accepting the job. For Wright, making sure the PUD prioritized the community’s wants and desires was central to everything he took on as a general manager.
WENATCHEE — Steve Wright, a longtime public-power big fish who recently retired from the top post of the Bonneville Power Administration will be the next general manager of the Chelan County PUD.
But doing that was easier said than done as a newcomer to the area and state. Wright said it involved “lots of listening and asking questions” as he worked on understanding the community and its goals.
“It really is an interesting place, particularly because of the role of the PUD,” Wright said, adding that the PUDs assets not only allow it to produce among the lowest rates in the country but also allow it to invest in things like parks, fiber and broadband.
“You have these really valuable assets and then the question is, well, what do you want us to do with them?” he said. “I think that first year or so was just about how do we put this in a framework that allows people to effectively engage?”
Looking back, making a visible difference in people’s lives, has been a highlight of the job. While working as Bonneville Power Administration’s CEO, Wright had the responsibility to make decisions that impacted 11 million people, but he said for the most part, those decisions were behind the scenes.
“Here at Chelan, the opportunity is you do things and people can see it,” he said. “That was incredibly rewarding after operating at a 50,000-foot level where people couldn’t see what you were doing.”
He’s proud of executing the PUD’s strategic plans, which included reducing debt and investing in the district’s assets. When Wright started, he said the PUD had about a $30 million capital budget. Today that number is close to $200 million.
Chelan County PUD General Manager Steve Wright was honored Wednesday with the Charles H. Percy Award for Public Service by the Alliance to Save Energy, a national nonprofit. The award recognizes Wright’s 40-year career as a champion of energy efficiency.
That amount of work doesn’t just happen, Wright said. For him one of the most rewarding parts of the past eight years was seeing PUD employees grow and rise to the challenge of getting more done than the PUD had in the past and seizing the opportunity to make a positive and meaningful difference in the community for decades to come.
“It may not be at the same magnitude as building the dams, but it’s certainly the same philosophy, which is if you invest now for the long-term, the community will thrive over the long-term,” Wright said.
The PUD currently has about 800 employees — a number that has grown about 15% under Wright’s leadership.
There have been challenges as well during Wright’s time as general manager. Although he says working in the public sector means getting to serve your friends and neighbors, it can be difficult to balance different desires and opinions within the community about the best path forward.
One of the most challenging instances of that was dealing with the rise of cryptocurrency. Ultimately, the PUD decided to set rates that tended to discourage cryptocurrency miners from coming to the area.
“I think the outcome, the most important thing, is that it reflected the views of the community,” Wright said when asked if that decision has a positive outcome for the region. “They did not want to engage in what was viewed as a risky economic development opportunity that could go well or could go poorly.”
Wright does hope to devote more time toward recreation, specifically running, traveling, biking and skiing. He isn’t sure yet about his next career steps — a conscious move on his part in an attempt to avoid creating any conflicts of interest as he finished up with the PUD — but he knows they won’t lead him out of the area.
“We’ve seen a lot of kindness towards others and we’ve personally experienced it,” Wright said. “If you put those two things together, you go, well, where would we find something that could match that? We’re gonna stay.”
Correction: A previous version of this story included a typo regarding the PUD’s capital budget.
WENATCHEE — Some of the 145 stranded Amtrak passengers delivered to Wenatchee hotels by school bus Thursday night spent another two and a half days on the train before making it to Seattle Sunday morning.
They had high hopes when they arrived back at the train station on Friday, passenger Alan Komrosky said in a telephone interview Monday.
He had boarded Amtrak’s Empire Builder at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in Williston, North Dakota, for a return trip to Seattle, scheduled to arrive at 10:25 a.m. Thursday. It rolled into Wenatchee at 7:30 a.m. Thursday morning in the midst of a record-making snowstorm.
Passengers spent the day waiting for the go-ahead.
“At 3:11 p.m. they announced a derailment ahead of us needed to be cleared,” Komrosky said. “They ordered us all Godfather’s Pizza from a local vendor.”
At 8:41 p.m., he said, referring to his text messages to confirm times, the school buses arrived to take the passengers to Wenatchee hotels for the night. They were then delivered back at the train for an 8 a.m. Friday start.
They left about 11 a.m., heading west. Two hours later, they stopped.
“It was announced that we were going to back up to get a run at a hill,” he said.
By 4:03 p.m. all forward motion had stopped.
“I did not feel any jerking or jostling around. We attempted to back up, but they stopped that effort quickly,” he said.
Looking back, he said, it may have been a slide.
“It was an area with no lights. It was very dark and several times the engine had to power down to reset the circuit. The snow was surrounding the cars up to the windows and several times the power went out briefly,” he said.
The passengers remained calm, if a little tense.
“The snow was up on the side, to the lower level of the windows. It had to be pretty darn deep,” he said.
“At 4:41 p.m., we were told two engines were on the way to help us back out,” he said. “We were not in any immediate danger, but you knew the potential was there. What if the lights didn’t come back on? What if the extra engines couldn’t reach us or what if they couldn’t get us pulled out? What if it got cold and we started running out of supplies? All things that cross your mind.”
The crew served a supper of pancakes and sausage, he recalls. When on a train for days, the meals become notable.
By 8:34 p.m. Friday, they were on their way back to Wenatchee and made it to hotel rooms by 10 p.m.
The state of the mountain snow and passes prompted a new plan for Saturday morning — return to Spokane.
“Customers had the choice, at Amtrak’s expense, to fly on commercial air carriers or to take a train to our designation,” Amtrak spokesperson Olivia Irvin said in an email Monday.
“We reached Spokane at 4:15 p.m.,” Komrosky said. They had a choice: a hotel and a ride to the airport in the morning or catch the next train for Portland.
Komrosky stayed with the train, ate fast food and reached Portland at 7:30 a.m. Sunday. After some rearranging of train cars, they reached Seattle in the late late morning — three days late.
It was a trip he won’t forget, he said.
“When we were waiting in Spokane to board for Portland, some people started calling it the ghost train,” Komrosky said. “Because it was under such unusual conditions, the train did not have a number and it did not show up on the Amtrak website. Also, none of us were issued tickets,” he said.
It went as well as could be expected.
“The staff was very accommodating and professional. I’ve taken Amtrak many times. This was highly unusual,” he said. “It may be awhile, but I would do it again.”
Irvin said all Empire Builder trips were canceled Monday and westbound trains 7 and 27 would also be canceled Tuesday. Tuesday’s trains 8 and 28, heading east, would originate in Spokane.
Details on track conditions provided by BNSF Railway were not available, but the state Department of Transportation freight report on Saturday said crews had reported 208 snow slides across Highway 2 in Tumwater Canyon — about 25 slides per mile.
An updated WSDOT report Monday estimated reopening Tumwater Canyon and Stevens Pass sometime Wednesday.
WENATCHEE — Skis, snowshoes and friendly neighbors all helped some Confluence Health doctors get to work and continue treating patients when an historic amount of snow hit North Central Washington.
“I debated just trying to just kind of push through the snow,” said Dr. Geoff Barry, a Confluence Health hospitalist. “And I thought, oh my gosh, I’m just gonna get this car stuck.”
Barry needed to get to work one way or another from his home up in Sunnyslope where he got about 30 inches of snow, he said.
Eventually, he hatched a plan to snowshoe a mile and a half down to Highway 2/97 and then hitchhike his way to the hospital.
About 90 seconds into his journey, Krista Gallentine, a neighbor and Confluence nurse, offered to drive him down to the hospital with her truck.
As a hospitalist, Barry works with critically ill patients in the intensive care unit, but the whole 15-person team takes care of all 125 patients at the hospital on Thursday. He also is there to assist in the event other medical teams end up too busy and can’t handle an influx of patients.
“(The team) knows that if they don’t do it, I mean, who knows how it’s gonna get done?” Barry said. “There’s a mechanism for one person, for example, if you have a fever of 102, you cannot come in and take care of sick patient. So we have a backup. There’s one person on backup to fill that slot, but if three people were to call in and not make it on the same day, that is unprecedented. That’s never happened before. People come to work.”
Nobody on the team missed work that day, according to Barry. Others weren’t lucky enough to get a lift.
Dr. Cate Straub, the general and trauma surgeon on call that day, started snowshoeing at 6 a.m. to get to work from her home in the Saddle Rock area.
“I walk to work almost every day,” Straub said. “It’s normally a 14-minute walk. It was almost an hour.”
But when she reached Crawford Street and explained her predicament to the people shoveling snow out of their driveways, they began cheering her on, according to Straub.
“It was really awesome to have sort of the neighbors sort of coming out of the woodwork to kind of support me and thanked me for doing a good job and everything,” she said. “One of the things I just loved about it was just that neighborly spirit that we don’t always get like when we’re all sharing in a single experience like that.”
Dr. Rita Hsu, who works in the OB-GYN department at Confluence Health, pulled out some old scale skis from her basement to get to work from her home in the Saddle Rock area. Hsu said she saw a couple feet of snow.
Hsu was the “safety net” that day in the event there was an emergency.
“We got to get there because we have work to do and patients to take care of,” she said. “And so we just got to get there.”
Hsu said that even among her coworkers, the trip she took was the least impressive. Her coworker, Dr. Bonnie Cho, who was the main doctor on call that day, lives on Stemilt Hill and needed to shovel the driveway starting around 5 a.m. Thursday.
In the end, it was a quiet day at work once she did get to Central Washington Hospital. It wouldn’t be until much later that someone came into the hospital in labor.
“It was almost like our babies and their mommies looked outside and said, ‘No way I’m going to try to get to the hospital right now,’” she said. “But nobody actually started to trickle in until about 2 in the afternoon after our public works people had managed to clear some of the arterial (roads). So we’re very thankful for that.”
Hsu said that the first baby to be born that day was around 11 p.m. “So that really was a lucky thing,” she said.