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A Week of Ice: How Portland Japanese Garden Navigated the January 2024 Winter Storm

Snow and ice on a tea house and tea garden at Portland Japanese Garden
The Tea Garden covered in ice and snow during closure. Photo by Jacob Knapp, Lead Gardener

In January, the Portland metro area got waylaid by a ferocious winter storm. A weather event so destructive that it resulted in Oregon Governor Tina Kotek declaring a state of emergency, the region saw homes and vehicles destroyed by falling trees, city streets and sidewalks caked in thick ice, widespread power outages, injuries, and death. Fortunate to have escaped irreversible damage, Portland Japanese Garden was still nonetheless among the many local organizations and attractions that were impacted.

Perched at a higher elevation than much of Portland, the combination of freezing temperatures, high wind speeds, and freezing rain left the Garden covered in fallen tree debris and sheets of ice that persisted despite warming temperatures. “Given how severe this storm was across the region, we’re relatively lucky,” shared the organization’s Director of Operations, Jason Sipe. “We had some burst pipes and damage to our HVAC [Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning] because of the power outages, likely due to surging current.”

Frozen ice out of a water feature in Portland Japanese Garden
A water feature in Portland Japanese Garden frozen midflow. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

Portland Japanese Garden first closed to the public on Saturday, January 13. “The safety of our guests, volunteers, and staff is our number one priority and is our guiding principle when assessing if we can open or not,” explained Alisa Richards, Portland Japanese Garden Director of Visitor Relations. “There are a few factors that we gauge before making a call either way: our pathways, bridges, and stairs need to be traversable, the power needs to be on, and accessibility requirements per the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] must be met. We also ask ourselves the simple question: will the Garden be able to provide a place of peace and tranquility during these given weather conditions?”

While Portland Japanese Garden considers all of its 140 staff members to be essential to the operation of the organization, the term “essential” is used as an official designation internally for some who, reacting to the specific needs of a given situation, are required to be present at the Garden to maintain the safety, security, and wellbeing of its grounds. With this storm, essential staff included members of the Security, Facilities, IT, and Garden departments. “They continually assessed the impact the weather was having and attempted preventative measures where feasible to avoid as much damage as possible,” Sipe noted.

Frozen waterfall at Portland Japanese Garden
The Heavenly Falls. Photo by Jacob Knapp, Lead Gardener

Some of the most challenging work was that which helped protect the Garden’s beloved koi in the Strolling Pond Garden. “Our staff worked to make sure the koi were receiving fresh oxygen aerated into their pond water,” explained Sipe. “We had to make sure the pumps were running at all times and even use breaker bars to prevent the water from freezing solid. This meant physically being present at the pond and keeping the generators fueled and oiled as the ice worsened and power outages persisted.”

After a full week, on Sunday, January 21, conditions had finally improved to the point that a larger team was able to arrive to the Garden safely and assess the landscape. “We immediately began starting to create accessible paths throughout the grounds to help facilitate a larger cleanup,” explained Richards. “By chipping away at the ice, we were able to melt enough of it to make the Garden walkable and ADA compliant for an opening on Monday, January 22. We know how much of an impact closing our gates has on our community, so we were very excited to reopen. I am deeply thankful to my colleagues here, across a wide variety of departments, who helped achieve this.”

Ice and snow on a path in Portland Japanese Garden
The path from the wisteria arbor to the Sapporo Pagoda Lantern. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

As the Garden reopened, the aftermath of the storm was still noticeable throughout the grounds with pine needles, branches, and other debris from above scattered on nearly every available piece of open land. “We gathered debris into large piles the week following the storm,” shared Garden Curator Hugo Torii. “Our gardeners and volunteers hauled them out so we could then move into finer cleaning, a process that is done carefully so we don’t damage the moss. Otherwise, many of our plants were subject to ice and snow burn, so this damage may be more noticeable in the coming weeks.”

The Moon Bridge covered in ice
The Moon Bridge. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

“Perhaps less noticeable than fallen debris was the disruption to our water features,” Torii continued. “Pumps that keep the Heavenly Falls running were able to turn back on relatively quickly, but the Jubitz Oregon Terrace water feature took much longer to thaw. It wasn’t until nearly a week later and several days of mild temperatures that we were able to restart it. Meanwhile, pipes that feed into the streams and ponds of the Natural Garden broke because of the freezing temperatures. We also had been working on an ongoing leakage problem in the upper pond of the Strolling Pond Garden, but the storm delayed that work. Later we learned that recirculating pump pipes in this area broke and now need repair. Guests may notice that the upper pond is undergoing some rehabilitation—we hope to have that resolved in February.”

“That all said, considering the toll the storm took on our community and many of our neighbors, I am grateful and relieved to say damage to our landscape was minimal. I would like to give credit to my colleagues in the Garden Department, who came in throughout the week and helped take care of our koi, plants, and garden facilities. In particular, Jacob Knapp [Lead Gardener of the Garden Department that Torii oversees] spent many hours throughout the closure helping protect the landscape.”

The Flat Garden of Portland Japanese Garden with snow on the ground.
The Flat Garden on the day Portland Japanese Garden reopened. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

“In addition to the Garden Department, I am also grateful for the incredible work of our entire staff here. That we were able to reopen as quickly as we did is thanks to their dedication to their work and the community we serve,” Torii concluded.

Now past the worst of the storm and in the midst of several mild winter days, Portland Japanese Garden is delighted to share that we are back to our normal winter hours and look forward to welcoming our community back.