EDITOR'S NOTE: The Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge and Hurricane Irma in Florida are both leaving scars on their respective landscapes, but the human implications of natural disasters often reach far beyond their physical paths. This week, The Review reached out to two local families whose lives have been impacted by these horrific events — and to the Lake Oswegans who rallied to provide compassion and comfort.
An act of kindness
Cascade Locks isn't Layla McLean's hometown, but it might as well be.
The Lake Oswego resident and local attorney grew up in Hawaii, but she spent many summers and holidays frolicking in the Columbia River Gorge, where her grandparents and countless other family members have lived since before she can remember.
So when the Eagle Creek Fire started over Labor Day weekend, threatening Cascade Locks and surrounding areas, the anxiety the fire caused for so many residents of the Gorge hit close to home for McLean.
"It's devastating. It's scary. Our family owns seven homes next to each other. We call it The Compound," McLean told The Review on Tuesday. "They've had fires before in the Gorge, but obviously nothing to this extent."
McLean's family was alerted to the fire on Sept. 2. Three days later, the blaze had covered more than 10,000 acres and threatened to creep down the ridge just above Cascade Locks — home to more than 1,100 people, including McLean's grandmother, Jean, and her three aunts, Kari, Sandy and Marilyn.
"Tuesday (Sept. 5) morning, I came to work and I knew they were at a Level Two evacuation, which means you have the cars ready, facing out of the driveway with the animals in their crates and ready to go. When you get the siren or knock on the door, you have to get in the car and leave," she said.
McLean shared her family's story of impending evacuation with her co-workers at Buckley Law P.C. in Lake Oswego. That prompted her boss, Rob Le Chevallier, to make a quick call to Keith Dickerson at the Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce. Dickerson then contacted The Grand Hotel at Bridgeport, where staff made arrangements for McLean's family to stay.
McLean said she was worried that the arrangements were being made in vain, because her family was set on staying put. But an approaching fire line finally forced them to evacuate, and they headed for Lake Oswego on Sept. 5.
"I'm so impressed by the firm here, the unsolicited kindness and generosity, everyone's time and effort — particularly Keith at the Chamber, who doesn't know me or my family," McLean said. "It made me very proud to be a part of the Lake Oswego community and reminded me of what makes this city so special."
For Dickerson, who serves as the Chamber's executive director and also as pastor at Hope Community Church, helping McLean's family was all in a day's work. After calling several local hotels and finding many of them booked up, he turned outside of the Chamber's directory to ask The Grand Hotel if they'd be willing to help.
As a local minister, Dickerson was able to acquire partial funding for the rooms from his church. But when he called back to discuss the details with hotel General Manager Bill Sheldon, Sheldon told him the church should keep its money for another time. The rooms would be provided at no charge, he said.
After one night at the hotel, McLean's family was able to stay with family in Vancouver before returning to Cascade Locks, where they're keeping a close eye on the fire that by Wednesday had burned more than 35,600 acres and was just 13 percent contained.
"What this says about Lake Oswego is that this community is tuned in to connecting resources to people who are in genuine need," Dickerson said.
McLean said the act of kindness was particularly touching to her aunt Sandy, who works in hospitality herself as the manager of the Columbia River Inn Best Western in Cascade Locks. McLean's mother and fellow Lake Oswegan, Karen Anderson, was also deeply touched and expressed her heartfelt gratitude in an email to Le Chavallier, Dickerson and Sheldon.
"Having a good meal and clean bed to rest was so gratefully received by them all. Words cannot adequately express their appreciation," Anderson wrote. "Heartfelt thanks. What a wonderful thing you all did, what a magnificent representation of our home town. Makes me proud to be a resident of Lake Oswego."
'Harder being away'
Mia Loder Corrales didn't sleep at all Sunday night.
The Lake Oswego resident and native Floridian spent the evening tracking the path and destruction of Hurricane Irma as the deadly storm made landfall in the Florida Keys and moved up the coast toward her hometown of Indian Rocks Beach, just outside of Tampa Bay.
"We were so blessed this was a Category 2 instead of a Category 5, like it was supposed to be," Corrales told The Review on Monday. "(My family) knows what the Gulf can do, and if it had hit just miles west of where it was, we would have gotten decimated."
Although she's thankful the storm dissipated a bit before passing over Indian Rocks Beach, Corrales and her family are still worried about the damage and flooding they might find when bridges connecting the island beaches along the Gulf of Mexico reopen. That's when they'll be allowed to return to the string of businesses the Loder family owns, all located just a couple hundred yards away from where strong storm surges came ashore.
"(Waiting to see the damage) is incredibly scary and nerve-wracking," Corrales said. "One of our locations has been there for 34 years."
Two years ago, Corrales and her husband JT moved to Lake Oswego after JT was offered a job at Portland Meadows, but the couple remain heavily involved in the family businesses — three restaurants and a coffee and juice bar in Indian Rocks Beach and neighboring towns.
The oldest, Crabby Bill's, was started by her grandfather, Bill Loder, in 1983.
Corrales said Sunday evening was spent glued to the Weather Channel — as well as checking online with Bay News 9, the local Charter affiliate in St. Petersburg — in an effort to learn as much as she could and pass along the news to her family.
"They can't get onto the beach yet because there's a lot of downed power lines. They don't have any signal, so they can't search on their phones to see the news," she said. "All night I was watching and texting them updates because they can get texts but no internet."
To date, Hurricane Irma is the closest to a direct hit Indian Rocks Beach has taken from a storm, Corrales said.
"The biggest storm my parents say they remember was Hurricane Andrew in 1992," she said. "The last one I can remember being pretty substantial to the area was Tropical Storm Debby, and we didn't even get a direct hit. The storm surge from that caused about 3 feet of water inside our Indian Rocks Beach location."
Corrales and her family are expecting similar flooding from Hurricane Irma, particularly at their restaurant that's located on a seawall in the town of Indian Shores, just west of St. Petersburg.
Corrales' family was urged by officials to leave the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg area completely, but the mass evacuation caused traffic jams so bad that the drive almost doubled in time. Horror stories of fights breaking out at home-supply stores over sandbags and chaos at local storm shelters kept Corrales' family in their homes, she said, where they hunkered down and waited Hurricane Irma out.
"It was taking people roughly 10 and a half hours (to get to Georgia), and there was such a shortage of gas that people were running out of gas and cars were getting stranded on the side of the highway," she said.
Over the next few days, Corrales' family will begin returning to Indian Rocks Beach to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Irma. While any loss of property is disheartening, Corrales and her family know that the storm could have been much worse if it hadn't dissipated slightly upon landfall — and thankfully, she said, nobody in her family was hurt.
"It's almost harder to be away from it, but it's opened my eyes that I need to be prepared in my own home so there's not mass chaos in the event something does happen (here in Oregon)," she said. "Both my parents said next time there's a warning in effect, they will absolutely evacuate, because they said the destruction they've seen just in their neighborhood was frightening, and that was just under a Category 2."