Storm May Only Dent Oregon Economy, Damage Still Serious

December 18, 2007

The Pacific storm that toppled trees and cut off power for days along the northern Oregon coast earlier this month left serious damage in the three counties that bore its brunt but may only dent the statewide economy.

“We’re always amazed at the resiliency and flexibility of the economy,” said John Mitchell, a regional economist.

Those counties hardest hit — Clatsop, Columbia and Tillamook — account for about 2 percent of the state’s nonfarm employment base, and insurance and relief money is expected to offset the losses of property and productivity. But the toll was heavy for many businesses and homeowners at the center of the storm, with the estimate already at $145 million.

In Astoria alone, an estimated 150 commercial properties and 596 homes suffered damage.

Artist Royal Nebeker figures his loss at $500,000 in paintings, his 30-year collection of art books, and his studio — and that doesn’t count the historic former fisheman’s co-op building that housed the studio.

“I’m devastated,” said Nebeker, a prominent artist who worked in a three-story historic building he owns on the Astoria waterfront. “I lost everything in my studio.”

The damage is still being assessed at the Port of Tillamook Bay Railroad, which exports lumber, supports 500 manufacturing jobs paying up to$45,000 a year and imports grain for dairy farmers. The Port-owned freight line runs 95 miles from the Port of Tillamook into the Willamette Valley. Every year, the line carries 3,000 railcars full of finished lumber to market from Hampton Affiliates and Stimson Lumber Co. in Tillamook, and Northwest Hardwoods in Garibaldi.

“If we can’t fix this, and quickly, we’re going to be putting the bulk of the manufacturing jobs in (Tillamook) county at risk,” said state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, whose district covers most of the affected areas. “And those are the good jobs down here.”

The Port’s director, Robert Van Borssum, inspected the line by helicopter and found dozens of landslides over the track, a tunnel plugged with debris and rails suspended over nothing but water from washouts along the Salmonberry River.

“The farther in we went, the worse it got,” Van Borssum said.

Van Borssum estimates that 25 miles of track are damaged or destroyed, and that fixing the line will cost $20 million. Even if federal authorities pick up 75 percent of the tab, he said, the Port can’t come up with $5 million in matching funds.

“Our operations are jeopardized,” said Steve Schmitt, a vice president at Stimson Lumber.

Dairy operators also may suffer. Tillamook Valley Nutrition, a feed mill, receives an average of six railcars a week full of corn, soybean meal and other grains for dairy feed. With the railroad out of commission, the mill is rerouting train cars to new offload points and trucking in the grain, raising costs.

“The cost of grain is killing us all,” said George Allen, who operates two dairy farms with 600 cows. “Half our cost is feed, so when it takes a jump that’s a huge impact.”

The storm also toppled an estimated 30 million board feet of timber in the Clatsop and Tillamook state forests. That much wood might be worth $3 million in prime condition. But it’s not clear how much will be salvageable or what price the state will get for the wood while lumber prices are depressed by the national housing slump.

“We do need to salvage those trees that are marketable, even if it’s not a great market, so we don’t have a bug infestation or fire material on the ground,” said Tom Savage, the district forester in Clatsop County.

The Port of Garibaldi also suffered. The Port lost two buildings, and the crabbing season that began the day before the storm was quickly aborted. Crabbing represents about half the value of Oregon’s fishery, and the most bountiful catch comes in during the opening weeks.

Tim Horgan, chief operating officer at Pacific Seafood, said his company was forced to discard 100,000 pounds of Dungeness crab that came in before the storm because it could neither refrigerate it or move it on roads blocked by trees. The crab was purchased for $2 a pound.

Horgan said the real impact on his outfit is on 140 workers at two Pacific processing plants. They lost a week of work at peak season, when they can clock 20 and 30 hours of overtime a week.

Tim Grossnickle, the one-man public works department in the tiny community of Wheeler, just south of Nehalem, has been working round the clock to clear storm damage in the community.

“There are a lot of people really hurting,” he said.

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