Rescues by chopper, front loader as flood hits northwest U.S.

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Residents in the foothills of the towering Blue Mountains in rural northeast Oregon were plucked from their flooded homes by helicopter and others rode to safety in the bucket of a front-end loader as relentless rain and melting snow pushed multiple rivers over their banks.

An earlier heavy snowfall in the mountains combined with two days of steady rain and warming temperatures to unleash floodwaters on the city of Pendleton and rural, mountain foothill communities to its east late Thursday and Friday. The Umatilla River crested just before 10 p.m. Thursday at more than 19 feet, nearly four times the average height for that date. Rivers all around the region overran their banks, setting records as they went.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency in Umatilla, Wallowa and Union counties late Friday to help communities deal with the severe flooding. The declaration means Oregon can mobilize the National Guard if needed

Authorities were still conducting search and rescue operations Friday with two helicopters, trying to reach residents still boxed in by high water in rural communities like Gibbon and Bingham Springs. They also described a chaotic scene from late Thursday, when rescue personal had to improvise to get the last few residents out of a rapidly flooding area of Pendleton using heavy machinery usually used for road maintenance.

“The last few residents that we evacuated, we used a front-end loader and put them in the bucket. The current was pretty heavy, and there were a lot of obstructions underwater,” Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts said. “It was difficult to navigate.”

A breach in the levee sent water into several large manufacturing plants and the wastewater treatment plant, Roberts said. Residents on wells were advised to boil their water.

Authorities in Umatilla County had used 35,000 sandbags by Friday and another 50,000 were en route from Portland, Oregon, about 210 miles to the west.

Evacuation shelters were open in Pendleton and on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, which was also hit hard by the flooding.

All but a nine-mile stretch of I-84 was once more open Friday after much more extensive closures earlier in the day. About a five-mile stretch of the freeway — which links Idaho and Oregon — will be closed for up to a week because of damage from the flooding, said Tom Strandberg, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

“There’s now a river running between the median, so it’s interesting — but at least the freeway is open now except for that detour,” he said Friday in a phone interview.

Rivers were expected to drop below flood stage this morning, authorities said.

By Kerry Minor

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