Letter Re: Winter Solstice Slam 2008–Observations from the Pacific Northwest

Hello Jim:
I send this to you from the snowy Seattle, Washington metropolitan area where we are digging out of a fairly impressive storm of snow and icy temperatures that have plagued an unprepared area. As a cop and a Preparedness Oriented Person (POP), I have been watching the lead up to and duration of this weather event. Here are some observations:

Advance Warning & Notification
Folks in these parts complained that there was little warning of the impending snow event. Some stated that since weather forecasters were often wrong, they would be wrong about this. When you had local television outlets, NOAA, The Weather Channel and AccuWeather all providing similar information, some of us would call that a trend likely to occur. Indeed, there was anywhere from a week to 10 days advance warning and modeling showing the cold temperatures and ice. Gosh, you didn’t have to have a degree in weather sciences to understand that when warm air with moisture slides over the top of entrenched cold air, you would get snow. Media outlets correctly warned folks to prepare. In my observations, most did not heed the warning until it began to get bad. Indeed, metropolitan areas (as I type this) have seen from 6-20 inches of snow. Outlying areas are at three (3) feet or higher! That is impressive for this area.

The Problems
Folks from other regions, especially the Midwest, often chuckle when folks in the Western Pacific Northwest (Portland Metro and Tacoma-Seattle-Everett Metro) areas complain of a few inches of snow. Problem is that much of these cities are built on hilly areas. Some cities see a 500-800 foot elevation gain within the city limits, features not seen with our neighbors in the plains. Add to the mix infrequent snow events so there are few plows and you have an immediate transportation problem. The lack of plows has hampered a quick cleanup of arterials in the region along with a general reluctance to use road salts (environmental issues so heartily embraced in this liberal region). Sand pits are well away from urban areas so transportation of sand to terminal points or public works yards were hampered. Most cities and the counties have given up on side streets and less traveled rural roads, leaving them to become ice skidding messes. Many people in the region were smug that their front, all or four wheel drives would get them through the mess, up and down hills, all without alternative traction devices like chains. That has led to nearly 1,000 collisions just on the interstates alone (early estimates are that there are likely 10,000 or more collisions, spin outs, street blockages and so on in the cities which have not tallied their response counts like the state). When heavy snow started falling, roads were passable at slow speeds. However, timid drivers afraid of the snow would abandon their cars on the streets and state highways, leading to blockages. These blockages would snarl traffic, cause collisions and block major transit routes for goods and services. For the airports, a shortage of liquid de-icer led to delays and cancellations (it should be noted that one company in North America makes de-icer and a strike there led to shortages – a ripple effect). Avalanche dangers led to passenger rail cancellations. Commercial bus companies canceled their runs due to closed mountain passes or streets adjacent to their terminals that were iced over and not sanded or plowed. At one point, the roads became so poor that our chief ordered us back to the station for emergency responses only, no active patrolling. Folks would call us for the most inane stuff. Unfortunately, this was stuff we would respond to on normal weather days. However, when they were told they were on their own to solve these minor problems, they got mad! Somehow, it was foreign to many of them to that they would have to solve problems like blocked cars or icy sidewalks. Unreal and yet, expected for this area. Makes one think of the challenges people would have in bugging out if a volcano were to cork off, an earthquake to split some bridges or a WMD type event.

JIT Wasn’t In Time
Just In Time (JIT)deliveries were hampered by the road conditions. Many gas stations in the region are starting to run their tanks dry as commercial fuel carriers can’t move product safely on icy arterials and side streets. Grocery stores reported runs on staples and emergency supplies (batteries, candles and TP, just to name some items) but were limited on restocking because normal 18 wheeler rigs were downloaded to smaller trucks or bobtails, just to make it safely. Many people failed to remember the last major storm we had and did not fuel in advance, either gas cans for their generators or their vehicles. Last week, prior to the storm and to beat an expected OPEC price hike, I was refueling some gas cans and topping off my car. I had a fellow look at me and ask if I was expecting the worst. I explained that I would be ready as I had learned early. His response to me was typical of folks in this area: “Nah, we’ll have regular deliveries.” I expect his thirsty F250 must be a bit annoying to him right now, especially after both gas station in my area and many more surrounding gas stations in the area when dry. I spoke with grocery store managers in my patrol area. They reported that people needed “just a few things” to tie them over. These people came back to find limited supplies like milk or eggs and were mad at the store! Certain large grocery chain stores reported that they ran out of shopping carts as so many people crowded into the stores to get what they could when the snow began to fall and stick. A local hardware store manager told me that he had a stream of people that came into his store, angry that he had sold out of faucet covers, rock salt, presto fire logs and snow shovels. He laughed when he told me that he saw the weather trending as did the corporate offices. They sent him additional product to stock and he sold it quickly, early on to those he described as, “Preparing early and correctly.” My liberal, elderly neighbors became snowbound. They believed that the government would make sure they could drive by having a plowed road in front of their house. [JWR Adds: See this Seattle Times article for background on counterproductive city policy: Seattle refuses to use salt; roads “snow packed” by design.] My wife and I wound up assisting them with taking some supplies to them when they ran out because they could not get out to the store.

Personal Preparations
I have been though many weird storms in this area. When I started tracking the forecasts 10 days out, I made sure I had the necessary food stuffs, fuel and firewood ready. The generator was tested. The inverter cart was charged and readied. The wood was stacked for easy access from the piles. The chainsaw was tested and topped off. It didn’t take much. I asked folks both at work and in the community if they were ready to hunker down if they needed to. Most of my fellow officers looked at me and said, “it won’t be that bad. I can always go out and get some stuff.” They would have to admit to me later that it took an awful long time to go out to find that milk, or it was sheer terror driving on the roads for a half gallon of milk.

Folks in the Pacific Northwest have no reason for not being prepared. And yet, I saw the same mistakes being repeated. Folks lulled themselves into complacency, believing that JIT deliveries would be there, roads would be tended to quickly and they could get out there and take care of things, “as needed.” I have learned it is the same folks who remain prepared, time and again, and who help those who either are too sheep like to do the minor work of preparing or recognizing that bad weather, environmental or mad-made events, can and do occur.

I wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas and Winter Solstice. I’m back to work in a day to deal with more snow (and more dealings with sheep). – MP in Seattle (a Ten Cent Challenge subscriber)