TURNER, Ore. (AP) — Facing currents so fast that their boat’s electric motor couldn’t navigate rising floodwaters, two state troopers rowed toward an elderly couple trapped near their home north of Brookings to pick them up and steer them to safety.
Firefighters on a routine check of a road prone to flooding found a man unable to reach his family, prompting a rescue that plucked seven people and two dogs from two houses near Jefferson.
Scenes of devastating destruction and dramatic rescue played out across the Willamette Valley on Thursday as melting snow met torrential downpours to sock the area with the worst flooding it’s seen since 1996. A young mother and her infant child died after the car they were riding in sunk in a creek.
Near swollen creeks in low-lying areas across western Oregon, authorities closed flooded streets and homeowners frantically filled sandbags to keep muddy water out of their homes.
“It’s definitely a trial we get to endure,” Jeanette Donigan said from a hill where her family sought shelter a few hundred yards from their home surrounded by water in Turner. “But earthly possessions can be replaced, as long as we got our children to higher ground.”
Donigan lives with her family on the grounds of a camp that hosts church retreats. She left before the water reached her home and wasn’t sure if it had flowed inside. Two of the camp’s three auditoriums were flooded, said her son, 16-year-old Nathan Donigan, and most of the 40-acre grounds were under water.
Nearby, Russell and Jeri Loftus rode their bikes from their home on dry ground to survey the damage wrought by the normally-peaceful Mill Creek.
“It’s a little disheartening,” Jeri Loftus said, as several inches of water lapped against the fire station behind her. “It’s a little scary, a little sad.”
The National Weather Service said rain would pick up Friday after a brief break Thursday afternoon. A number of rivers have risen to major flood stage, and some had yet to reach their high point.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley is coated in rolling farms and peppered with small towns, many near creeks that drain the region’s abundant winter rainfall into typically peaceful rivers. The rare combination of a powerful snowstorm followed by warmer temperatures that melted the snow and rain that seemed incessant was enough to overwhelm the Willamette River and its tributaries.
Corvallis, Scio, Turner and Salem all reported significant damage and high water. Oregon State University canceled classes and activities on its Corvallis campus Friday.
Gov. John Kitzhaber declared emergencies in Marion, Coos, Benton and Lincoln counties, and he said the list is likely to grow as winter weather “overwhelmed communities across our state.” The emergency declarations open up state resources to help coordinate disaster response in the affected communities.
In Albany, raging waters swept a carload of four people out of a grocery store parking lot and into the mouth of a culvert carrying Periwinkle Creek underneath a busy intersection.
A 24-year-old man and his 5-year-old son survived and were taken to a hospital in Portland. Rescuers later recovered the bodies of 18-year-old Catherine McLaughlin and her son, 20-month-old Aiden McLaughlin
“I’m numb,” the child’s paternal grandmother, Andrea Hemenway, told The Oregonian. “I can’t believe what happened, you know. It’s awful.”
Two bridges in Corvallis were damaged and unusable, and a major landslide blocked a road with mud and fir trees, police said.
The Red Cross had at least four evacuation centers open to provide food and shelter to people kept away from their homes.
Portions of Salem were deluged, and city officials warned that the situation would get worse before the Willamette is expected to crest on Friday afternoon. The city shut down several busy streets, and the Oregon State Penitentiary was on lockdown as water approached its barbed-wire fencing.
Associated Press writer Nigel Duara contributed from Portland, Ore.