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'Nobody was prepared for it': Drivers frustrated by slow road clearance during Portland snowstorm

Truckers who got stuck put the blame partly on the Oregon Department of Transportation. ODOT said it's been struggling with staff shortages.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Stalled cars and long lines of parked semi trucks became a common sight on freeways Wednesday night and Thursday after heavy snowfall created chaos around the Portland-Vancouver area.

The storm dumped far more snow on Portland than had been forecast even as late as Wednesday morning, and the traffic backups were compounded by drivers who abandoned their cars as the situation deteriorated. Local commuters and long-haul truckers all found themselves caught up in the mess.

"What's ultimately the issue here?" said one truck driver who had been stuck since 12:30 a.m. Thursday. "Nobody was prepared for it."

Even so, some of the drivers and truckers who got stuck in the storm placed the blame in part on the Oregon Department of Transportation for a slow response as driving conditions worsened.

"You know, in different states, they're a little bit more coordinated," said Roy Skinner, speaking from the cab of his truck on the Interstate 5 ramp to Interstate 84 east.

The ramp to I-84 near the Lloyd District became one of the region's big trouble spots when a pair of semis became wedged together on the narrow, icy viaduct Wednesday evening. Traffic couldn't get by all night.

"If there was anybody on I-5, I-84 or 205 that had any type of life-threatening emergency ... they probably would have died," said one motorist who got caught in the backup. "There was no getting through that traffic, at all."

ODOT staffing issues

ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton said the agency was operating at a disadvantage due to a staff shortage that slowed down the pace of road clearance.

"We were hoping to do better than we did on that," he said. "We are down in staff right now, we can't get the roads cleared as quickly as we hoped to because we're not at full staff."

ODOT was also caught off guard by the speed with which the snow began piling up and impacting drivers, he said. In some cases, crews weren't able to move through and clear out the snow and ice because stretches of freeway had already filled up with stalled or abandoned cars.

That chicken-and-egg problem continued on Thursday, eventually prompting ODOT to fully shut down southbound I-205 traffic across the Glenn Jackson Bridge for several hours to give the crews a clear shot at plowing and de-icing.

"Mother nature hits us hard sometimes and we go with the tools we best we can, and some times mother nature wins, and in this case, mother nature won," Hamilton said.

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