ODOT Comes to Aid After Storms Paralyze Oregon

Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Transportation
After performing some of his regular job duties as the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) Transportation Maintenance Coordinator, Jake Jensen found himself in the middle of a six-hour rescue mission after storms engulfed Western Oregon.

Wed March 06, 2024
Lori Tobias – CEG Correspondent

On a Saturday afternoon in the middle of January, Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) Transportation Maintenance Coordinator Jake Jensen was on his way back to the Veneta maintenance station after assisting co-workers with downed trees on a nearby rural highway.

A severe winter storm was expected to paralyze much of western Oregon, but the forecast for the lower Willamette Valley, where Jensen worked, suggested the area would escape the worst of it. The forecasts, it turned out, were wrong. At approximately 2 p.m., Jensen encountered a line of traffic at a standstill. So began a more than 6-hour rescue mission that left Jensen wet, cold and exhausted, his truck damaged, but everyone safe.

Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Transportation

The storm had begun pelting the Portland metro area and areas north of Eugene on a Friday night. Saturday, the temperatures around Eugene dropped, the winds picked up and soon the already saturated ground began to freeze.

"The temperatures dropped into the double digits," recalled ODOT PIO Mindy McCartt. "We had been getting pelted with such precipitation that everything was saturated and wet. It froze and never completely thawed, and then rained and refroze .... ODOT gets out with the de-icer and salt, but with those frozen layers, nothing is going to break through that. Add in the wind and the cold and you are going to get what we like to call exploding trees — saturated trees that freeze from the inside. If you have not been in a wooded area during storms, it almost sounds like the 4th of July."

It was at the Knowles Hill Creek on Highway 126 that Jensen, a 17-year ODOT employee, saw eastbound traffic blocked at the west end of the tunnel. Highway 126 connects the urban center of Eugene to the Oregon Coast. It's rural, winding and rugged and absolutely critical to commuters traveling in either direction. It's also a link for the rural OR Route 36, which runs from Junction City to Mapleton before connecting with 126 about 15 miles east of the coast.

"It's a major vital road linking the coast to the Willamette Valley," McCartt said. "It is a big priority to keep that clear and our crews know it."

Joined by passengers from stranded vehicles in the freezing rain and darkness, Jensen cleared dozens of fallen trees from Knowles Creek Tunnel to Veneta, working tirelessly to cut a path just wide enough to drive through.

"He's got three power saws, a whole lot of gas and some extra chains," McCartt said. Any other time, the tools might have allowed Jensen to make quick work of the task, but with temperatures hovering around 18 degrees, it was anything but.

"The frozen trees dulled the chains," Jensen said. "I had to rotate my saws, placing them inside the cab of my truck to keep them from freezing up. I went through six sets of bar chains. At one point, I made the decision to turn off my high beams because I could see how many more trees were in our path. I needed to focus on one tree at a time."

Jensen later reported that he couldn't remember a time during those 6.5 hours when he didn't hear more trees falling.

"His hope was that they were falling away behind them, away from people and not in the direction they were trying to go," McCartt said.

But Jenssen learned that was wishful thinking after a tree fell on his truck.

Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Transportation

"At the time the tree hit his truck, he continued clearing," McCartt said. "He had no idea the extent of damage to his truck, but with the needles covering it, he assumed the worst." But when Jensen cut the tree from the truck, he discovered the truck was fairly unscathed, the Variable Messaging Sign (VMS) and truck rack taking the brunt of the fall. "He did say he was so grateful his truck took the worst," McCartt said. "If it would have hit a passenger who knows what kind of injuries they could have sustained."

Despite the downed power lines and cell towers, Jensen did eventually manage to make radio contact with headquarters to explain his predicament.

"The other crews were out already, but they were able to come from what they were doing and cut their way toward the coast and meet him in the middle," McCartt said. "These maintenance crew members really pride themselves on getting it done ... and sometimes with only pure grit. They knew how dangerous it was, especially after the tree fell on the truck. Jensen, exemplified determination, quick action, and a get-it-done attitude, transforming a dangerous situation into a remarkable display of community and resilience. We commend Jensen and all involved crews for their dedication to public safety." CEG