Letter Re: Surviving Snowmageddon


Regarding the recent piece Surviving Snowmageddon: The precursor to Seattle’s 2012 storm was the December 2008 Snowpocalypse. While the power outages weren’t as severe as 2012, the well-publicized driving conditions were nightmarish. [JWR Adds: Ditto for driving Seattle’s steep streets in 2010.]

The storm hit during a workday and dropped about two feet of snow across the Puget Sound region. Temps were in the teens, visibility was whiteout, and the snow remained on the ground at least 10 days – quite rare for these parts. People were totally unprepared, especially for the drive home. Freeway traffic was literally at a stand still by late afternoon. I-5 was a parking lot from south of Olympia all the way up through Everett (approx 100 mile stretch with Seattle in the middle). People were stranded on the freeways for hours – cars were running out of gas while people tried to keep warm. Accidents everywhere. It took my sister-in-law’s mother nine hours (9!) to drive from downtown Seattle to her home 15 miles south. My dad and I were working in Portland when the snow hit. As soon as we saw/heard of the traffic nightmare on I-5 we opted for a plan-B route. We headed east past The Dalles and crossed the river on Highway 97, made our way up through Yakima and Ellensburg, then up and over Snoqualmie pass on I-90. We added many miles to the trip but the lower traffic volume on the east side of the Cascades made for relatively easy driving. Ironically, the road conditions on the mountain passes were better than down in the metro area. Since Seattle might receive snow once per season, you can imagine how many snow plows are allocated to the metro area and the city of Seattle. Road conditions were bad, but it was the shear volume of traffic that simultaneously descended upon the freeways (and the poorly experienced snow drivers) that made for the nightmare. Snowpocalypse illustrated the problems with trying to bug out of Seattle in the eleventh hour. 

Seattle is also hilly. Except for the major river valleys, the entire region from the Sound east to the Cascades is a series of gradually rising foothills and plateaus. This means that when it does snow those without a capable vehicle are stranded. By the next morning there were cars abandoned everywhere, especially at and around the bottom of hills. I can remember driving (comfortably, in my 4×4) up the hill to my parents house, weaving through a maze of cars that had been left smack in the middle of the road (did I mention their bad snow driving?) The only boon was that after a couple days the roads were pretty deserted and you could drive around like it was Mad Max. The interesting observation here is that the snow lasted long enough that gas stations on the tops of hills experienced gas shortages – the trucks couldn’t make it up the unplowed hills. 

Finally, the whole situation was amplified by the City of Seattle/DOT bureaucrats and their miles of red tape. City residents, for example, weren’t allowed to plow their own streets – they had to wait for the City. Most neighborhoods were never plowed. In another brilliant move, the City decided not to clear the roads (the roads they did plow) all the way down to the road surface (to avoid damage), and left behind a solid sheet of hardpack (remember the hills?). Even better, the City decided not to salt the roads (ecological concerns of course) and instead simply sand. When then mayor Greg Nickels gave the City’s response to the storm a “B” grade, people were angry. The whole fiasco likely cost Nickels his job in the next election cycle, but it took a major crisis that directly affected their well being before voters came out of their coma to recognize bureaucratic buffoonery for what is was. 

Fortunately my family is used to this kind of thing and was thus mostly unaffected, and I have a nice photo of my wife and I cross country skiing down the neighborhood street to remember it by. – L.D.N. in Bellevue, Washington