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Winter storm hits Pacific Northwest amid extreme cold

A homeless man who spent the night outside in temperatures that dipped into the single digits attempts to find shelter from the frigid cold on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Freezing rain, ice pellets and snow began falling on parts of the Pacific Northwest late Thursday afternoon, the National Weather Service said, as a winter storm bolstered by strong winds arrived on the heels of a cold front that plunged temperatures below zero (minus 18 Celsius) with wind chill in some areas.

Authorities from Seattle to Portland, Oregon, say one of their biggest concerns is making sure that the region's thousands of homeless people have access to shelter.

David Cooper, who said he's been living on the street for 20 years, sat bundled up under several layers of blankets in a southeast Portland neighborhood.

Neighbors brought him hot soup, tea and hand warmers throughout the day, he said, allowing him to warm up a bit.

“It’s the wind,” Cooper said. “I slept with my shoes on, mittens on.”

Wind gusts of 50 mph (80 kph) thrashed the area around Portland, sending trees crashing on top of homes. In the Columbia River Gorge, gusts topped 80 mph, (130 kph) creating potentially dangerous travel conditions, said meteorologist Rebecca Muessle with the Weather Service's Portland office.

“Those east winds are definitely going to pose a problem,” she said. “As people travel through the Gorge, there's going to be struggles there, both because of wind but also really strong freezing rain and snow.”

Unlike the moisture-laden winds from the Pacific, east winds typically bring cold, dry air from over the Cascade Range that sweeps down into western Oregon.

Cold wind chills can cause frostbite on exposed skin in as little as 30 minutes, the National Weather Service says.

In Portland, officials opened an additional emergency shelter for people without housing Thursday, for a total of five. The four shelters operating Wednesday night were at 90% capacity with 394 people spending the night, according to Julie Sullivan-Springhetti, spokesperson for Multnomah County, which includes Portland. The city and the county have declared emergencies because of the severe cold.

In downtown Portland, Steven Venus tried to get on a light-rail train to find shelter after spending the night huddling on the sidewalk in temperatures that dipped to zero degrees with wind gusts of 40 mph (65 kph). Venus had a sleeping bag wrapped around his head and was using an open umbrella to carry his things so he could keep his hands covered.

“My toes were freezing off. They were frozen. The rest of me was fine. It was only my toes,” he said, pausing beside a flimsy tent where another homeless person was taking shelter.

Venus was one of several dozen people who were still out in the elements in an area of Portland known for a large concentration of tent encampments. One man was sprawled on the sidewalk with his legs exposed, barely covered by a jacket. Another man, who was wrapped in a makeshift covering of plastic sheeting and a tattered coat, got a handout from the Salvation Army as the wind blew his plastic covering away. Yet another man inched along in a wheelchair, clutching a guitar across his legs.

Courtney Dodds, a spokesperson for the Union Gospel Mission, said teams from her organization had been going out to try to convince people to seek shelter. But the mission’s overnight facility was already full. Teams were also handing out blankets and other supplies to those who didn’t want to come inside, she said.

“It can be really easy for people to doze off and fall asleep and wind up losing their lives because of the cold weather,” she said. “We really are concerned for people’s lives who are living outside.”

The regional homeless authority in King County, home to Seattle, has activated its severe weather response and opened additional shelter space, including overnight shelters and day centers. Seattle City Hall is serving as an overnight shelter for adults until at least Saturday, the agency said.

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for northwestern Oregon and all of western Washington state. Freezing rain is expected to continue through Friday, said Muessle, the meteorologist.

Further south in Oregon, the agency has issued an ice storm warning for an area including Eugene and Corvallis. Ice accumulations could reach half an inch there, according to the agency’s forecast.

As many as 12,000 people in Oregon were affected by power outages on Thursday spanning Portland and Mount Hood, according to Portland General Electric, although that number decreased to around 8,000 customers by 6 p.m.

The National Weather Service says travel may be difficult because of icy roads and reduced visibility caused by blowing snow.

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Associated Press reporter Gillian Flaccus contributed from Portland.

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Claire Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Claire on Twitter.