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Highway 20 severed by deluge

By Eric Dolson

Drenching rains and accelerated snow melt became a torrent that severed Highway 20 about 10 miles west of Sisters above Suttle Lake, starting about 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday, February 7.

A gaping wound was cut into the major artery linking Sisters to the western portion of Oregon. Cinders and sand beneath that section of road were quickly eroded by the same deluge that caused tremendous flooding throughout Oregon and Washington.

"It was like somebody shooting a fire hose into a sand pile," said Pat Creedican, District Manager for the Highway Division of the Oregon Department of Transportation in Bend.

As the road slowly collapsed, one of the first drivers to come upon the slide was either unable to see or avoid the hole in time and broke the axle of his semi-truck. Other drivers were alerted and there were no other accidents, according to ODOT.

The fine material washed down the hillside, tearing out trees and burying portions of Camp Davidson between Suttle and Blue lakes below.

The camp's maintenance shop was buried to the roof and a couple of trucks and a back hoe were overrun.

The flow was remarkably solid; one could walk right over the top of it, according to Paul Williamson of the U.S. Forest Service.

The gap in the highway extended nearly 100 feet by the time repairs could begin. The guard rail and posts, suspended above the void, slowly swayed in winds still driving tropical rains into an Oregon normally braced for February's ice and snow.

Todd Taylor of Hap Taylor & Sons said their plan was to build a "toe" of large boulders, three and four feet across, at the bottom of the rift. Heavy equipment would then layer and pack smaller material back up the hillside to rebuild the road bed.

Regional Engineer Dale Allen said that Taylor & Sons was chosen for the repair on the basis of who had the equipment and material available to do the job, which could cost between $300,000 and $500,000 when paving is complete.

Much of that amount is expected to come from federal emergency funds, Allen said.

Taylor & Sons had some of the needed material in their Redmond yard and were able to organized the trucks, including local haulers from Sisters. Deschutes County volunteered their 10-yard trucks and provided boulders from a location on Camp Polk Road, according to ODOT's Creedican.

While the equipment needs were not tremendous, with only room for a large bulldozer, an excavator, a roller and a loader perched on the hillside, at times eight or nine trucks lined up to drop their loads of fill to be pushed into the hole.

About 20,000 yards of replacement material was brought in to repair the breach, according to Pat Creedican. This material was hauled in two 12-hour shifts per day between various loading points, some as far away as Redmond. There were about 1,200 truckloads, or 18 trucks per hour through Sisters, Creedican said, followed by 600 tons of asphalt.

A thousand yards of rock from on top of the Santiam Pass were delivered by highway maintenance crews from the Santiam Junction and snaked westward in a long continuous pile close to the hill, on the other side of the rift from Sisters, waiting to be used as the last layer before gravel was put down.

Creedican said they hoped to have the road paved and open for two-lane travel by 10 a.m. on Tuesday, on the seventh day after the hillside collapsed. He said it would only take a few extra hours to complete the paving, and with traffic still stalled on the other side by washouts and landslides, now was a good time to finish the job.

Even then, travel would be limited to Highway 126 toward Eugene, since Highway 22 to Salem was still cut several miles east of Idanha and Highway 20 to Albany had a major slide that could take another week to repair.

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