Unlike other area parks and cities, Seattle doesn’t close parks in severe weather, such as the windstorm earlier this month that toppled a Seward Park tree and killed a father of two.
Hours before a savage windstorm struck Western Washington this month, some parts of Olympic National Park where giant old-growth trees stand were shut down to the public.
Shortly after intense gusts from the March 13 storm hit Point Defiance Park in Tacoma, employees assessing the wind’s severity closed the park’s evergreen-shrouded boulevard and trail system known as Five Mile Drive.
But in Seattle, even while high-velocity winds whipped through some of the city’s oldest and tallest trees in Seward Park, people were free for hours to enter, walk and drive the park’s gated loop road and nearby trails as they pleased.
That included Eric Medalle, a 42-year-old father of two, who was killed instantly by a wind-toppled tree while out for a Sunday drive through the park with his toddler daughter. The massive Douglas fir crushed the front end of Medalle’s sport-utility vehicle. In the back seat, his child survived with only minor injuries.
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After the tragedy, officials for several public parks elsewhere in Washington told The Seattle Times they sometimes close parks or parts of them before or during windstorms or other extreme weather to protect the public.
But that’s not the practice in Seattle — at Seward Park or in any of the city’s other parks, where at least 37 trees blew down during the latest tempest.
“As long as I can remember, we haven’t closed our parks for inclement weather,” said parks-department spokesman David Takami, who has spent most of his 24 years with the city in its parks department.
“We’ll close parks for other reasons; if there’s construction or maintenance going on, things like that. But this storm, it was highly unusual. We haven’t had high winds of quite that intensity.”
The city had plenty of warning. At least two days before the storm hit, the National Weather Service in Seattle had issued a “high-wind watch” across Western Washington, advising that intense wind gusts could be coming.
About 24 hours before the storm hit — when meteorologists became more confident that gusts of 50 to 75 mph or higher indeed were on their way — the weather service upgraded its “watch” advisory to a “high-wind warning.”
“The hope and intent for doing that is so not only the public, but those who serve the public, can make decisions and take actions that will save lives and property,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Logan Johnson.
Such weather advisories typically are distributed to a variety of agencies, including local public-safety and emergency-management departments, Johnson said. For the March 13 storm, the high-wind alerts were in effect for most of Western Washington, including Seattle, he said.
The city’s Emergency Management Department provides messaging to the public about predicted storms, but it leaves decisions about park closures up to the parks department, community planning coordinator Debbie Goetz said.
Takami noted parts of Seward, Carkeek and Golden Gardens parks were closed because of fallen trees, branches or power lines Sunday after the storm.
After Olympic National Park received the weather service’s warning the day before the storm, park officials announced pre-emptive closures to several public roads and campgrounds well before the storm hit.
“The areas we closed were ones where we’ve got large old-growth trees and where there is a real risk of a tree or large branches falling, and possibly either trapping or injuring people,” Olympic National Park spokeswoman Barb Maynes said.
Bellevue’s parks department didn’t close any parks March 13, but it canceled a holiday lights display at the Bellevue Botanical Garden in December because of a high-wind warning.
“We evaluate park closures due to extreme weather on a case-by-case basis,” Bellevue parks spokeswoman Christina Faine said in an email.
Point Defiance Park in Tacoma was initially open March 13, but shortly after winds picked up, park employees “called the on-call manager and said it was getting pretty bad, and recommended that Five Mile Drive be closed,” Metro Parks Tacoma spokesman Michael Thompson said.
After that closure, two trees blew down along the drive, Thompson said. Employees eventually also closed the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and shut the gate to the entire park early because of the storm, Thompson said.
“Many of our parks don’t have gates, so that becomes problematic,” he added.
But it can be done. For a severe windstorm that blew down trees and limbs several years ago, the park district installed portable barriers at gateless Wright Park to keep people out, Thompson said.
In Seward Park, the road looping into the wooded area where Medalle was killed has a gate that can be closed and padlocked. Even after the fatality, park-goers, reporters and others ventured into the wooded park for several hours, as firefighters toiled to remove the tree from the partly crushed SUV as towering trees nearby teetered and groaned amid fierce gusts.
The brunt of the windstorm struck the Seattle area — with winds into the mid-40 mph — from about 1:30 to 4 p.m.; the strongest gust was recorded near Mount Rainier at 95 mph, Johnson said.
At 7:28 p.m. Sunday, Takami tweeted out the closure of the city’s three storm-damaged parks, including Seward. It and Carkeek remained closed until 3 p.m. Monday, after hazardous trees or branches were removed, he said.
The nonprofit Seward Park Audubon Center near the park’s entrance held a native plant sale on the day of the storm, which knocked out power to the adjacent neighborhood, center director Joey Manson said.
In his six years working there, Manson said, he hasn’t known the park to close for extreme weather, though the independently run center that leases city space occasionally has canceled activities because of wind or lightning, he said.
“I can’t think of a time when any of the numerous trees that have come down in the past have injured anyone in the slightest,” Manson said. “Unfortunately this was one of those cases.”
The ragged stump of the wind-snapped tree that killed Medalle remains rooted in the park’s rain-soaked grounds. The city has taken the rest of the fallen tree to a maintenance yard, while risk managers, arborists and others investigate the incident.
The probe remains ongoing, but it has preliminarily found the tree “fell because of the strong winds and saturated soils,” Takami said.
Jon Jainga, manager of the city parks department’s urban forestry division, added that maintenance and forestry employees constantly look for and remove potentially dangerous trees and branches in city parks. Before the storm, the city’s most recent work on a tree hazard in Seward Park occurred in February, Jainga said.
In all, the March 13 storm took down at least 37 trees in parks across Seattle, Takami said. Seattle’s transportation department, which maintains the city’s street trees, responded to another 129 locations where the storm blew down trees or branches, though it’s not yet known how many of those damaged trees were city-owned, SDOT spokesman Norm Mah said.
“It was the right recipe for all these trees to come down,” Jainga said. “The ground is so saturated with the record rainfall we’ve had lately, and with those high winds, that’s all that was needed.”
But if that’s the case, why didn’t the city simply close parks with potentially susceptible trees, if only until the storm subsided?
“We haven’t done that in the past,” Takami said. “But we might consider it in the future.”