With much fanfare came last week's snow, wind and ice, delighting children of all ages but frustrating parents trying to get to work or...

Share story




With much fanfare came last week’s snow, wind and ice, delighting children of all ages but frustrating parents trying to get to work or in many cases just stay warm.

Following on the heels of early November’s flooding, Snohomish County once again — but not alone — became the scene of a disaster, this time in frosted flurries that quickly accumulated. As much as 12 inches fell in some parts of Stanwood, Arlington and Darrington.

Tens of thousands of residents suffered days without power, relying on woodstoves and shelters to keep warm and well-fed.

Less snow in east and south Snohomish County still was burdensome to many who found themselves trapped in homes due to icy roads and clogged traffic. Since King County also bore the brunt of three days of snow and ice storms, many Snohomish County residents working there found themselves stuck, turning to hotels for a late-night bed.

With November posting the most precipitation ever recorded in the region, many are glad to turn the calendar page to December, but some worry about what’s ahead. Typically, January is the month for snow, officials say, and who can tell what December will bring?

For now, as the snow continues melting away, leaving only a slushy reminder of November’s cold, Snohomish County residents can take a breath and prepare for whatever might come next.

Collision calls


During the first two days of last week’s snowstorm, the Washington State Patrol was busy in Snohomish County. By Tuesday, residents got the hint that staying indoors and off the roads was a good idea.

Nov. 26 collisions: 248

Nov. 27 collisions: 315

Nov. 26 calls to 911: 1,632 (average is about 525)

Nov. 27 calls to 911: 1,554

Collision injuries: 18, including one airlift to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for a leg injury. There were no fatalities.

Source: Washington State Patrol

Not like the old days

Lest anyone think last week’s snowstorm was a record, it didn’t come close. A similar storm paralyzed the county in 1948-49, and several heavy snowfalls were recorded during the 19th century.

In 1996, right after Christmas, people found even more reason to stay at home: In parts of Snohomish County, nearly 2 feet of snow fell in a two-day period.

Boats sank under heavy snow in local marinas, hillsides in Woodway slid into Puget Sound, and in Shoreline a sinkhole the size of a city block appeared.

Possibly the biggest snowstorm occurred in February 1916, when more than 5 feet fell across Snohomish County.

Yes, 5 feet.

“That was the big wingding of a storm for this county,” said Dave Cameron, one of the authors of “Snohomish County: An Illustrated History.” “Many buildings collapsed or lost their roofs, and there are many pictures of people digging out the trolley tracks in downtown Everett.”

While Doppler weather technology was many decades away, one prognosticator tried to warn people, said David Dilgard, an historian at the Everett Library.

“An elderly Native American woman named Pilchuck Julia accurately predicted that snow, and that helped make it memorable,” Dilgard said.

Pilchuck Julia lived alone near the Pilchuck River at a time when a walk to the town of Snohomish was still quite a distance, Dilgard said. She sold smoked salmon, clams and other goods to town residents, and that year she made it a point to warn people of an impending snowstorm.

“I don’t think many people believed her,” Dilgard said. “She’d say, ‘Make sure you have plenty of firewood,’ and people would be polite but few listened.”

When Pilchuck Julia died in 1923, that was all people were talking about, he said.

As with Pilchuck Julia’s warning in her time, this past week’s snowstorm underscored the need to be prepared for all types of weather surprises, law-enforcement officials say. Dilgard agrees.

“This one may have been more severe because of the cold snap in the middle,” he said. “But part of the reason we have such a mess each time is that people aren’t really planning ahead just a little bit.”

Snowed in for days

PUD’s biggest outages


While 60,000 customers without power accounted for one-fifth of the Snohomish County PUD’s customers, last week’s emergency was not necessarily the worst the utility has suffered.

April 27, 2004: An April storm with sustained winds of 50 mph put 150,000 customers in the dark as transmission lines were knocked down and 19 substations went out of service. Virtually all customers were reconnected within 72 hours.

Jan. 6, 2004: An ice storm that most remember as severe and dangerous affected about 20,000 PUD customers, actually a relatively low number. Most customers had power back within 48 hours.

Oct. 28, 2003: Gusts of up to 56 mph blew southward, toppling trees and cutting service to 82,000 customers. Most memorable is the fact that the winds blew out the windows at Ivar’s Restaurant in Mukilteo.

Jan. 20, 1993: More than 175,000 customers, or about 80 percent of PUD customers, missed watching President Clinton’s inauguration speech. This massive storm brought sustained winds of 66 mph to the area and is considered by many to be the most severe in PUD history. Power restoration took 10 days.

Nov. 24, 1983: Fewer turkeys were cooked that Thanksgiving as about 70,000 customers spent the day in the dark. Wind gusts reached 70 mph. Restoring power took a week.

Source: Snohomish County Public Utility District

As snow began to fall in small flakes in most of Snohomish County Nov. 26, Jesse and Lisa Smith of Stanwood thought the weather might make a nice change to their waterfront scenery — until the power went out.

“I think we could’ve watched a few less movies and paid closer attention to what the weather forecasters were saying that first day,” Lisa Smith said. “As a result, we weren’t prepared for what happened next.”

The Smiths were among about 10,000 Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD) customers to lose power that Sunday. But neither fretted. They had a nice pile of wood for the stove, and how hard could it be to warm up a can of baked beans?

But by midweek, PUD crews were trying to respond to more than 500 downed lines and substation problems across the county. It would be days before the Smiths were even close to getting their power back.

After two days, with snow and ice building, the Smiths were out of food, unable to get out of their driveway and quickly running out of fuel for the fire.

“At that point, I knew we had nothing to look forward to,” said Lisa Smith. “Wednesday night, we planned to get to a shelter but couldn’t.”

That’s when Jesse Smith began ripping up the Pergo bamboo flooring he’d only recently laid down.

“It was all we had left to burn for warmth at that point,” he said. “And we were pretty much out of food.”

Red Cross officials, aware of the number of people without power and that most repairs could be days away, by then had decided to open a shelter in north Marysville.

Wind followed the snow and ice, making it more and more difficult for PUD crews to replace downed lines. In some cases, a new line would be put up only to come down the next day.

“We had several residents at the shelter each night,” said Red Cross spokesman Kris Krischano. “We decided we’d keep it open as long as we had a need.”

The Smiths, who finally got out Thursday, straggled into the shelter, located in a church. There they were welcomed, warmed up and fed a hot meal.

“We thank the grace of God for this place,” Jesse Smith said. “The shelter has allowed us to regroup.”

Long road home

A second snowfall that started Monday left parts of Snohomish County under a foot of snow. On average, the county got about 6 inches during the two-day snowstorm, and while no record, it was agony for many commuters.

After a long shift with the Seattle Police Department, Jeff Sharp decided Monday night to start making his way home to Sultan. The officer — who in normal weather usually patrols on the back of a bicycle — headed north from the Northgate area on Interstate 5.

Already, it was getting tough to see, and with the usual congestion on I-5 in the evenings, Sharp knew it would be worse than usual — but didn’t know how bad it would get.

“I got off about 7:30 p.m. and sat in traffic for nearly three hours,” he said. “By about 10 p.m., I think I’d traveled about six or seven miles and only found myself in Lynnwood.”

Earlier that day, Sharp’s children had broken out winter coats, boots and sleds to enjoy the snow. Sharp, however, was still a long way from home and a warm meal when he decided he’d had enough.

Sharp turned off the highway, found a hotel near Alderwood mall, and called his wife to tell her good night.

“It was frustrating, and I don’t think I remember anything being any worse in the eight years I’ve lived up here,” he said. “When I left the next day to continue home to Sultan, it still took me two hours from Lynnwood.”

Add the fact that the hotel double-charged him for the night, and Sharp said he’s already had more than enough winter weather for the season.

While snow and ice made driving difficult and many like Sharp took refuge in hotels, no fatalities resulted from the bad weather, said State Patrol Trooper Keith Leary.

But law officers had their hands full. According to Leary, more than 550 collisions were recorded Nov. 26-27, and more than 5,500 calls came into 911.

“For the collisions we did have, there were only 18 injuries, and nothing was major or life-threatening,” Leary said. “That was our biggest concern through this.”

Troopers quickly issued warnings about conditions, hoping to keep as many drivers off the roads as possible. By last Wednesday, the word was clear: Drive only if you must, and slow down.

“We’re very fortunate that for such a significant snow event, we didn’t have anything that serious,” Leary said. “We’d like to think that people actually listened to what we had to say.”

Line crews struggle

During the storm’s peak last Tuesday, as many as 40,000 PUD customers were without power, said Neil Neroutsos, a spokesman for the utility. As many as 20,000 more lost power at some point during the week.

Needing reinforcements for its own workers, the PUD turned to crews from other public utility districts in Grant, Douglas, Chelan and Okanogan counties, as well as hiring private contractors. More than 80 crews were in the field at one time, some repairing lines, others trimming trees so another ice storm wouldn’t cause as much damage.

When a high-voltage line went down deep in the woods at Oso, snowmobiles were used to move equipment in.

Foreman Ryan Burbidge of Michel’s Power, fixing downed lines near Stanwood, said the cold alone made the work extremely difficult, and prolonged shifts were taking their toll.

“We were more than happy to come up here and help Monday morning,” he said Thursday. “But we’re going on 90 hours of work with only two six-hour rests in between.”

PUD crews are required to take more rest breaks during such emergencies, but they, too, were feeling the strain.

Compared with many past emergencies, Neroutsos said, “this storm has been more severe in terms of the time it’s taken to restore power. In 2004, we suffered a huge ice storm and, believe it or not, only had about 20,000 customers without power, and only for about 48 hours.”

Sunday through Wednesday last week, each night brought more treacherous weather, creating problems where there had been none.

“You think about the customers with little children while you’re out here working in the cold,” Burbidge said. “You try to let them know you’re doing all you can while you’re out there.”

By Saturday, nearly a week after the first snow fell, Snohomish County had its lights back on and its heaters running.

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577