Counting down the top local stories of 2016
PORTLAND, Ore. – The concept of people pushing, or even breaking, boundaries defines several of the key storylines of 2016 in the Portland area.
Most noticeably, an issue that has existed for decades took center stage in many ways, while an unexpected location served as the backdrop for a national dialogue. And a surprising political result could not be ignored.
Thus was 2016, a year of conflict and change.
These were the top local news stories of the year, as voted on by the staff at KGW News.
Portland’s homeless crisis
A decision by the city of Portland to relax enforcement of outdoor camping created tent communities across the region, and the formation of several semi-permanent clusters in parks and roadside areas.
The move forced into the open a problem that isn’t much of a secret for those in area social services and government – the lack of sufficient shelter beds for the nearly 2,000 people who sleep outside every night in the metro area.
One of the city’s major recreation corridors became a homeless magnet, leading to a late summer sweep of the Springwater Corridor, which essentially just shifted the problem elsewhere.
On the horizon in 2017 is a new mayor, some ambitious plans to add more shelter capacity to the system, and an understanding that even if tents are removed, the people who occupied them are still here.
The Malheur occupation
Harney County, at least in area, is the largest county in Oregon. But few Oregonians likely know much about it.
Today, its Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a commonly known place, thanks to a group of anti-government ranchers and self-proclaimed militia members who occupied the federal refuge for nearly six weeks in January and February.
The armed occupation was a scene unprecedented in Oregon’s history, with federal law enforcement negotiators joined on the scene by politicians from other states and a worldwide audience watching the events unfold on the Internet.
A dispute over the extent of power the federal government could exercise led to the occupation and standoff. The ending, coming a week after a key protest leader was shot and killed by state troopers, was not the last chapter in the story.
In Portland eight months later, the group’s leader, Ammon Bundy, and several colleagues were acquitted, despite an extensive government case and guilty pleas by many participants. Bundy and others now face charges in Nevada in another case, meaning that the issues they raised about government overreach will be on display in a courtroom again.
The reaction to Donald Trump
Presidential campaigning has not had a strong Oregon focus in recent cycles, thanks to the Electoral College and the state’s strong support of Democrats. And in the 2016 cycle, a Portland visit by Bernie Sanders that had all the trappings – and crowd – of a huge rock concert showed the sentiment of the community.
So, what to make here in Portland of the unexpected victory of Donald Trump, the outspoken business mogul and reality show veteran?
Not my president, said many locally. Some took to the streets Election Night, but many more joined in on subsequent nights. But the initially peaceful protest turned into something different over the course of one week – it included vandalism that police termed a riot, frequent blockages of interstates and bridges, and more than 100 arrests. Many decried the estimated $1 million in property damage and the subsequent distraction brought upon peaceful protests.
The message, some protest leaders said, was on speaking out for the rights of minorities, protecting those in need and voicing opposition to the President-elect.
Without the violence, protests continued into December and more are expected around the Inauguration and into the days of the Trump Administration.
Our environmental hazards
Early in 2016, moss on trees turned out to be more than that. It was an indicator of potentially dangerous levels of chemicals in our community. Toxic amounts of chromium, cadmium and arsenic were found in different Portland neighborhoods, linked to industrial sources.
The direct impact on local health was unsettling if unclear. A community that has prided itself on being environmentally conscious had to confront failures in the regulatory process and gaps between what may be deemed safe by health experts and what is allowed by law.
Adding to the concern about what is in our air and water, local schools responded to lead in their water supplies, brought on by aging pipes and infrastructure needs that not have kept pace.
The national concern in Flint, Michigan of water that poisoned people there seemed not far away at all as area schools resorted to crating in bottled water, covering taps and working to scrape lead paint off of buildings and playgrounds.
In Portland, a major construction bond issue was put on hold and the system’s chief officer resigned, demonstrating the degree of turmoil unleashed by the widespread findings of lead.
NW Portland’s big blast
Smell gas, get out. It’s a straightforward instruction, and it likely saved lives in mid-October when an explosion decimated part of a city block.
Amazingly, no one died when a 1-inch gas line was nicked, blowing up a building and damaging several others. At least eight people were injured and numerous local businesses were forced to close and either rebuild or relocate.
The fact that the blast happened on Northwest 23rd Avenue and Glisan Street, an area bustling with shoppers, residents and workers, made the low human casualty toll even more remarkable.
In addition to exposing the extremely old underground infrastructure in that block, the gas explosion was a jittery reminder that a major earthquake could strike the region and wreak havoc on the old pipes, bridges and buildings that make up much of Portland’s core.
Fear in the Gorge
Another kind of explosion rattled residents in a small town in the Columbia River Gorge, and many others who have been concerned about the proliferation of oil-toting trains through the region.
A June crash of a Union Pacific train led to an estimated 40,000 gallons of spilled oil, groundwater contamination, local evacuations, and a worrying plume of smoke that could be seen for miles. It was exactly the type of scenario many have warned about, and that local emergency responders have trained for.
A federal probe concluded that the company failed to maintain the track and missed problems during inspections.
While checks are likely to be more diligent in the future and safety improvements in the trains themselves have been touted, there is no lessening of the number of oil trains traversing the Pacific Northwest.
The cost of home
Portland’s continued popularity and migration has only worsened the housing crunch. Affordable housing is scarce and getting squeezed out farther from the central city. Neighborhoods that once may have been good for starter homes or young families are now priced at an unreachable level.
Or, your home has appreciated nicely, your neighborhood features everything you need, and the economics of a housing boom are working for you.
Either way, the Portland housing market – for buyers, sellers, homeowners and renters – is affecting lives.
The rental situation has faced similar pressures, leading to calls for rent control, new policies to protect tenants and more tools to encourage developers to build affordably priced units.
Chloe Eudaly, a political newcomer and independent bookstore owner who ran on a platform of addressing low-income housing, surprised many by beating an incumbent. Measures to address some systemic housing issues around the city are gaining some traction, but with not enough inventory, it may take time for progress to reach everybody who needs a home.
Law enforcement leaders stumble
Harney County wasn’t just home to the Malheur occupation. It was where the career of Portland’s police chief hit a wall.
On a springtime hunting trip with friends, Larry O’Dea said he accidentally shot a colleague. But that wasn’t the initial report. And it wasn’t publicly disclosed for more than a month even though Mayor Charlie Hales was aware of the incident.
The entire story – from a day of drinking and shooting at squirrels that wounded a man – to the seeming cover-up and trickling out of the facts was more than enough to lead to O’Dea being placed on leave and then retiring.
He now faces criminal charges.
At the county level, the Multnomah County Sheriff wasn’t faring much better. Facing allegations that he tried to influence union votes and mistreated employees, Dan Staton retired in the summer.
His replacement? Former Portland Police Chief Mike Reese.
Glory in Rio
There were plenty of special moments in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio for Oregonians to cherish.
Athletes with Oregon ties won a dozen medals, including seven golds. And with each standout performance came remarkable stories that were shared about the training, drive and support network that were needed to get these athletes to realize their Olympic-sized dreams.
From Gresham standout Ryan Crouser to Central Catholic High graduate Galen Rupp, the storylines were compelling. The power couple of Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton both medaled as well, giving Oregonians even more to celebrate.
And the University of Oregon, having its struggles this year on the football field, had few equals in Rio, boasting 18 former or present Ducks in competition. As Olympic hurdler and college football athlete Devon Allen, who is now training for 2020, told the Washington Post, “You go to Kentucky to go to the NBA; you go to Oregon to go to the Olympics.”
Wild coastal weather
A pair of tornadoes on the Oregon Coast were part of a major autumn weather system that moved through the area. Touching down in the small town of Manzanita, a weekday morning tornado damaged more than 120 buildings and left a path of destruction through the town. A second tornado was spotted near Oceanside about 30 minutes later.
In total that day, 10 tornado warnings were issues in the area, and it was the first time two tornadoes had touched down in that region in the same day in 25 years.
No fatalities or serious injuries were reported in either case, but residents said it was the most dramatic weather event there in decades.
Published: Dec. 22, 2016