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Final score: Storm 1, Portland airport 0

By Ben Jacklet
The Portland Tribune

Airport officials said they had no idea what they might do differently to handle future calamitous ice storms after a slew of canceled flights last week left thousands of travelers weary and irritable.

Portland International Airport Director Steve Schreiber said airport crews prepared properly for the weather and handled it well, considering the magnitude and duration of the storm.

"When we're all done here, we'll go back and look at whether we could have done anything differently," he said. "But at this point, I truly don't know anything that we would have done differently.

"We've played it by the textbook on how you keep pavements clear. We have put down close to a half-million dollars' worth of de-icing solutions. We have thrown everything we have at the storm. It was just more ice over a longer period than we've ever experienced. We've got 3,300 acres here to keep cleared, and it's just a lot of territory to cover."

Weather experts said the ice storm was so powerful that it made preparations futile.

"At some point, Mother Nature is going to win out over any plan you make," said Steve Todd, meteorologist in charge at the Portland office of the National Weather Service. Todd said storms this severe hit Portland only every 30 years or so.

Todd said the storm, which dumped freezing rain onto the area from Tuesday afternoon through late Thursday morning, produced far more ice than other cities typically have to deal with during winter storms.

"Portland is one of the worst places in the country for frequency of ice storms and for intensity of ice storms," he said. That's because the easterly winds of the Columbia River Gorge "create this abnormally small, very cold area that -doesn't move like a normal storm system," he said.

"You can have a very warm, moist storm go over this area and drop significant amounts of rain into a freezing layer. Any normal place, that storm would have brought the temperatures above freezing. Not here, because you have the gorge bringing cold air in from east of the mountains," Todd said.

The airport is restricted in the de-icing solutions it can use because of state regulations that protect the nearby Columbia Slough from contamination. But Schreiber said he didn't think that was the issue last week.

"The solution we used typically works very well," he said. "We just got to the point where it just would not penetrate the ice. I'm not sure that any other materials would have worked better."

Todd said airport officials were in frequent contact with the weather service in the days leading up to the storm.

"I know they were on top of it because I talked to them many times. They were gearing up as well as they could, given the resources they have."

Maintenance crews attacked the ice with de-icing solutions and plowing around the clock, but as the freezing rain persisted, the de-icer stopped penetrating the ice and the constant plowing was making for a dangerously uneven surface.

De-icers ran short
Steve Johnson, a spokesman for the airport, said workers went through more than 200 tons of solid de-icing materials and 100,000 gallons of liquids.

Because Portland seldom faces freezing temperatures, the Port of Portland, which operates the airport, does not keep huge volumes of de-icing solution on hand. Nor do the airlines, which are responsible for de-icing their planes with four or five different solutions. The port and the airlines need to ship in extra material when a big storm hits, and that was challenging last week, with the airport and Interstate 84 closed.

The airlines and the port both ran short on de-icing materials, though Schreiber said they never completely ran out. He said it wasn't a question of volume: "The de-icing material just -wasn't working. There was so much ice out there, it just wasn't making a dent.

"As soon as we would get it cleared we would get another wave of freezing rain in, and after a while the runways became too slippery. We consulted with some of the airlines to see how they felt about things, and we all came to the conclusion that it was too dangerous to operate aircraft.

"Ultimately, that's our job here, to make sure that things operate safely and we're not putting people in jeopardy," Schreiber said. "That has to be our highest priority."

The airport was closed for nearly three days, stranding thousands. While service appeared to be pretty much back to normal by Friday, many passengers were left wondering whether they would be compensated for the inconvenience.

Some airlines offered free accommodations to stranded travelers. When all of the hotels near the airport filled up, the port helped transport people for free to lodging in the Lloyd Center area.

"We have tried to arrange for hotel rooms for passengers and for transportation to get people to hotel rooms," Schreiber said. "We've worked with our concessions to provide food and beverages to people. We're trying to do everything we can to make people comfortable."

Help on the way
Passengers also received a helping hand from the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and a family of spontaneous volunteers. Gary and DaLynn Patterson drove up from Sherwood with their four children to hand out snacks and drinks to passengers who were delayed by the storm.

"We were stuck at home and we thought we'd practice some random acts of kindness," Gary Patterson said. "Some of these folks have been here for four days. We met two girls from Israel who didn't know anyone here and were just trying to get home."

DaLynn Patterson added: "We've had to stay overnight in airports before. We know what that's like. We know how much you just want to get out of there."