The strangest Christmas: My experiences in the great Northwest snowstorm of 2008. [Part I]

I’ve done a couple of posts recently on notable storms in recent history, such as the Montreal ice storm of 1998 or the Midwest Blizzard of 1975, and in doing so I’m struck most deeply by the human stories of these events. Weather history can be very dull when it’s about cold fronts and precipitation totals, but that hardly compares to harrowing accounts of people camping out in their powerless houses or urban neighborhoods turned to zombie-apocalypse ghost towns by extreme weather. While looking for more stories like this I decided to tell my own story about the great Christmas blizzard of 2008 in Oregon. With the exception of the Omaha/Council Bluffs Tornado of 1988, the Christmas blizzard remains the most memorable weather-related experience of my life.

The weekend it hit, both my job and my family were stressing me out. In late 2008 I was still practicing law at a large corporate law firm in Portland, Oregon, and the wreckage of the economic crash that led to the Great Recession was still very much in evidence. I was working on a large corporate deal that was supposed to close on December 19, a Friday. My parents, whose house was about half a mile from my apartment in the suburb of Beaverton, had decided we would all fly to Omaha to visit my sister and her family for the holidays. We were all supposed to go together, but because of the deal I couldn’t leave before the 19th. They flew out on Wednesday, and I was stuck in town until the following Monday. I was supposed to leave on a flight early Monday morning, December 22, and because it was so early and my apartment was far from the airport, I decided to book a hotel room near the airport for that Sunday night and leave from there.

Here are some views (not taken by me) of the Portland, Oregon snowstorm of December 2008, accompanied by appropriately discordant Christmas tunes.

The snowstorm that caused my troubles was actually the third in a row of extreme weather events that hit the Pacific Northwest in December 2008. The first snow fell December 14, the previous Sunday, and was accompanied by extreme cold temperatures. As soon as this abated, another storm front came in on the 17th. This was the one my parents were worried about, hoping their planes, which routed through Denver, would not be too badly affected. They left Portland early Wednesday morning, December 17, and made it through all right. While the city got a lot of freezing rain and the bitter cold continued, when this front passed it seemed that the worst was over. Weather would probably be fine for my own departure on Monday morning.

That was not what happened. On Saturday local weather stations and Internet sources began warning of a huge new storm headed Portland’s way the next day. My plan was to close up my parents’ now-empty house–turning down themostats, watering plants etc.–and then, leaving my Jeep parked at my apartment, take mass transit from Beaverton to the Portland Airport, where I’d catch a shuttle to my hotel, the Red Lion Inn. I packed and got everything ready on Sunday morning but as snowflakes began to fall at mid-day it seemed likely that buses and MAX trains (I had to take both) would be running late. I had no set time to be at the hotel, though check-in time was 4PM. That was when I left. I remember waiting for my first bus down at the corner near my apartment, burdened with a gym bag and my laptop case. It was snowing lightly and I was thinking, “I bet this isn’t going to work, but I guess I have to try.”

christmas 08 trees

The heavy snow overburdened tree branches all over the metropolitan area. This was taken in Beaverton.

Because the temperature hadn’t been above freezing in over a week, the mess from the previous storms was still everywhere. Freezing rain fell on top of about 4 inches of unmelted snow. This resulted in a thick flat crust of ice, about 1-1/2 inches thick, laying on top of the snow. If you stepped in it, your foot sank into a spongy mass like very light styrofoam. You could break pieces of the crust and pick them up. I remember doing this while I waited for the bus. Even growing up in Omaha, Nebraska I’d never seen ice quite this weight or consistency before.

The snow got much worse during my trek to the airport. Because buses had to chain up and were running on snow routes, it took forever to get to a MAX station where I could catch a train to the airport. Trains were already running hours late. I took the Red Line train toward the airport, but because of its frequent stops and delays, the entire trip–which should have taken just less than an hour in good weather–took more than 4 hours. It was about 8:00 PM when, cold, tired and fully expecting the whole trip was for nothing, I trudged up to the snow-blanketed doors of the Red Lion Inn at the Portland Airport, lugging my baggage. My dad had just texted me about how pleasant it was in Omaha as he sat drinking wine in front of the Christmas tree at my sister’s house.

plane at pdx 08

The December 2008 storm played havoc with air travel in Portland. Here is a lonely plane left on the runway during the storm.

The hotel was mobbed, mainly by airline personnel; it was one of the go-to hotels for flight crews especially from Delta Airlines. I had a guaranteed room and got my key, earning the harsh stares of other would-be guests who were trying to check in but could not. There was a terrible little pub at this hotel but I had no other choice for food and in any event there was nothing else to do, so I went down for a beer and a bite to eat. I sat at the bar next to two Delta stewardesses whose flights tomorrow had just been canceled. Sure enough, just as I got talking to them, my phone lit up with texts from Southwest Airlines, telling me my own flights for the morning were canceled.

When I got back to my room I called the airlines to see what could be done about getting to Omaha. I expected to be on the phone for a long time. I wasn’t. A ticket agent told me that travel to Omaha, or really anywhere out of Portland, was impossible before Christmas. Even flying standby was impossible. They could get me to Omaha on Friday, December 26. I was supposed to come back on Sunday the 28th. What was the point? I took a refund, then called my parents to give them the sad news that I wasn’t coming to my sister’s for Christmas–at all. I was bitterly disappointed, but given the ferocity of the storm, not surprised.

So now I was stranded at an airport hotel, far from either my own house or my parents’, in a city that was literally shut down. With the premium on hotel rooms, I had no hope of extending my stay at the Red Lion another night, which meant I’d have to find some way to get home in the morning. I remember that night watching The Wizard of Oz on cable in the hotel room, feeling very cold, dejected and worried. I was going to be facing a Christmas holiday pretty much alone. (This was a few months before I met my husband). Already this was the strangest Christmas in my memory.

In Part II, coming tomorrow, Christmas becomes existential…but at least the wine was good!

The header image of this article includes a photo by the Oregon Department of Transportation, used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The photo of the airplane is by Wikimedia Commons user K50Dude and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The photo of tree limbs is by me and copyright (C) 2008.
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