‘Wave your arms’: Rescuers look for Umatilla flood victims


Snowmelt and heavy rain caused the Umatilla River to overflow its banks

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Residents in northern Umatilla County have been warned they could be stranded for a significant period of time due to the recent flooding from the Umatilla River.

Rescue crews will be on the ground and in the air on Saturday to not only remove people from dangerous situations, but also to help residents assess whether they are able to “shelter in place” for several weeks.

Officials from the county’s Flood Joint Information Center and Umatilla County Sheriff’s deputies said anyone needing help should wave to the helicopter crews making rounds on Saturday.

Emergency evacuation notices were issued Friday to people living in the northeastern part of the county. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency for Umatilla, Union and Wallowa counties where severe flooding, snowmelt, erosion and landslides have pummeled the region.

Flooding on I-84

Flooding shut down multiple areas of I-84 for hours earlier on Friday in eastern Oregon, including near Hermiston, Ontario and Baker City, the Oregon State Police said. Commuters should check Tripcheck.com before heading out.

OSP Public Information Officer Peter Murphy told KOIN 6 News the actual issue behind the closures are highway scouring and the need to inspect before reopening. Additionally, he said there are not sufficient facilities near Ontario to handle all the drivers and truckers heading west.

Shawn Rance of Vicksburg, Michigan is a long-distance trucker and the owner-operator of Duckin Truckin Express. Rance, carrying a truckload of nursery stock, stopped in Troutdale on his way to Denver. But he was told he might not be going that way.

“It’s a major impact when you’re dealing with refrigerated time-sensitive loads and that’s what I have today,” Rance told KOIN 6 News.

“There are certain things that can stay on the trailer a little longer and certain things you’ve got to get off as quick as you can,” he said. “I have to call the customer and figure out what we can do and call the broker and make a whole bunch of different route plans today.”


Officials with the Office of Emergency Management said the waters rose quickly due to a perfect storm of higher temperatures and rain. The sudden snowpack meltdown caused the Umatilla River and other tributaries in northeast Oregon to overflow their banks late Thursday.

By Friday evening, Umatilla County officials confirmed at least 26 people had been airlifted out of flooded areas to safety.

Officials said the city drinking water is fine even though it might have an odd smell.

Scott Lucas, the State of Oregon Search and Rescue Coordinator, told KOIN 6 News their rescue efforts have been ongoing since the waters began to rise.

“We’ve rescued individuals off rooftops on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. This morning we rescued a swift water team that got stranded by trying to rescue the people on that house,” he said.

As they move into different areas, they’re finding pockets of people stranded in different locations.

“We haven’t been around the high water like this where we’re actually rescuing, you know, lowering down, getting people off rooftops. Basically landing on high ground to rescue people that are surrounded by water,” Lucas said. “I don’t think we’ve done this for a few years.”

Drone footage of flooding in Pendleton, February 7, 2020 (Courtesy: Wayne Green/City of Pendleton)

The community is responding to help those in need. Some shelters were in place in Milton Freewater and on Umatilla reservations. The Red Cross set up a shelter at the Pendleton Convention Center where about 30 displaced residents were staying on Friday night, including Troy Younce and his cat, “Booger,” who evacuated from a mobile home park on NE Riverside.

“Grabbed clothes and whatever — didn’t have much time, about half-hour to decide,” Younce told KOIN 6 News. “Everybody else was leaving.”

He said his neighbor drove him out in a truck as the water rushed over the vehicle’s bumper and debris floated past.

“Boom, he runs over something, it was like a doghouse or something but it was big,” Younce recalled.

The Red Cross said local restaurants donated meals and “PAWS” donated pet carriers for those who left with little time to spare.

“Who wakes up in the morning and says, OK, you’re going to be homeless — lose everything you have?” Younce said.

Damage assessments haven’t yet begun and some roads washed out by flooding won’t reopen anytime soon.

“When one person loses their home, that is a disaster and that is why the Red Cross is here to be able to help those people,” said Nadine McCrindle, the executive director of the American Red Cross for Central and Eastern Oregon.

Many have said the rising waters are worse than the historic floods of 1996.

“It’s insane, I haven’t seen anything like this before and I lived here all my life,” said Umatilla resident Jeremie “JJ” Whitesell. “I’m just hoping it doesn’t dam up and flood the town.”

The National Weather Service said another storm system is on the way late Friday and Saturday bringing as much as another inch of rain. But the temperatures are expected to cool off, which will turn the rain to snow — and that’s good news. Sunday is expected to be dry.

Other parts of the Pacific Northwest are also dealing with flash flooding and landslides.
Officials are warning of more flooding and landslides in western Washington state on Friday as the rain keeps falling and rivers continue to rise, but warnings were lifted on some rivers.

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