Most people who responded to a Seattle Times poll about the city's and Metro's responses to snowfall awarded top grades. But others said there was room for improvement.
When her crowded downtown bus turned through last Friday’s snowstorm onto Southwest Avalon Way and the driver shouted, “We made it to West Seattle,” Lora Radford and dozens of other passengers who had endured a long, slow and bumpy journey demonstrated their relief.
“Everybody cheered,” Radford recalled. “We were in this together.”
That was the prevailing attitude across Seattle, with many residents showing some measure of patience as city, King County Metro and school-district authorities scrambled to deal with the historic weather and execute their basic responsibilities.
Snowstorms can bury political careers when constituents lose confidence in their governments to clear roads and keep buses running, and Seattle residents have indeed lodged complaints about slippery sidewalks, most of which property owners are responsible for clearing, and icy side streets.
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They also raised questions about inadequate planning for homeless assistance and breakdowns in communication by Metro that at times left crowds waiting for buses that never came. At least two people died from exposure in Seattle, among at least six across the county.
A city map provided updated information about which streets had been plowed. But Anna Letitia Zivarts, program director with the disability-rights group Rooted in Rights, noted no comparable map dealt with sidewalks, curb ramps and bus stops.
“It became immediately clear after our first snowfall this year who the city prioritizes,” Zivarts said.
Yet local leaders, including Mayor Jenny Durkan, are emerging in better shape than their counterparts a decade ago, when a much-maligned snow response helped persuade Seattle voters to boot Greg Nickels out of the mayor’s office.
Most of the city’s arterial roads were regularly salted and plowed, Metro’s buses ran on a new emergency network, Seattle’s homeless-outreach team brought people into shelters and City Light crews worked through the cold to restore power to thousands of customers.
Durkan commanded daily briefings with her cabinet members, and her administration pumped out updates via email and social media.
Leading behind the scenes was Deputy Mayor Mike Fong, who penned the City Council’s 2009 analysis of the botched 2008 response.
“The communication and outreach was above anything I would have expected and certainly above what we experienced in 2008,” said Radford, executive director of the West Seattle Junction Association.
Most respondents to a Seattle Times online poll appeared to agree: more than 60 percent gave ‘A’ or ‘B’ grades to the Durkan administration, Metro and Seattle Public Schools, with 34 percent granting the city an ‘A.’
“City did as good as can be expected when these type occur so rarely,” Crown Hill resident Paul Plumis wrote, offering Seattle and Metro ‘B’ grades.
Durkan declined to award her administration an overall grade. Nickels was torn apart after awarding the city a ‘B.’
“I give high marks to the people of Seattle for coming together and for their patience and to our city employees and first responders for their tireless dedication,” the mayor said, praising public servants who “worked back-to-back, 12-hours shifts for days on end.”
“They helped open emergency shelters, plowed our key arterials and quickly responded to outages. I am so proud of them for all they did to keep Seattle safe and open,” she said.
As snow fell, melted and fell again, the city and county sought to communicate with residents about which roads would be plowed. (Clearing every street simply wasn’t going to happen, officials acknowledged.)
The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) deployed a plan that prioritized clearing busy “gold” and “emerald” routes key for hospitals, schools, buses, emergency responders and large employers.
Crews began treating roads with salt and brine on Feb. 3, ahead of the first wave of snow. At least 35 city plows were in use at any given time, augmented by a dozen contracted vehicles, according to the mayor’s office.
Peter Hahn, who led SDOT from 2010 to 2013 under then-Mayor Mike McGinn, watched the process play out from Queen Anne. Hahn noticed areas where early de-icing helped make certain arterials passable, he said.
The city meanwhile allowed most residential streets to pile up with snow. Some steeper, unplowable stretches were closed completely and taken over by sledders.
Trash and recycling pickups were interrupted, with Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) citing unsafe conditions for its crews. SPU now is trying to catch up and says service will be back to normal next week. The utility is now offering customers $10 billing credits to customers who had two or more missed garbage collections during inclement weather.
Once the snow stopped, SDOT said it would target roads near schools identified by the district as most in need of attention.
In closing schools for the fifth day in two weeks Wednesday, the district cited sidewalks that had not yet been cleared of ice and slush.
Frustration mounted in some neighborhoods where ice-caked side streets kept motorists trapped.
“When the plows have gone through their circulations and can see that a nearby street is thick with snow and ice, why not take a dip up that street?” said Cindi Laws, who lives in Rainier View.
But Nickels, who paid the price for not digging Seattle out quickly enough, tipped his hat to City Hall for doing “their homework.”
SDOT hand crews also worked to clear certain sidewalks, with 30 to 100 employees involved each day, though officials repeatedly reminded property owners they were responsible for the walkways surrounding their buildings. SDOT appeared to respond to complaints about slick overpasses like Denny Way, clearing and salting them. With miles upon miles of sidewalks still treacherous Wednesday, Durkan urged residents at home to flock outside and shovel at noon.
“A snowy sidewalk or curb ramp can make it impossible for a wheelchair user to leave their home, an icy bus stop means no access to the bus system, and for many of us with disabilities, driving simply isn’t an option,” said Zivarts, the disability-rights advocate, criticizing the city for not doing more to help everyone get around.
Gordon Padelford, executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, offered a mixed assessment. The city “did what it could” and some neighbors helped each other shovel out sidewalks, but relying so much on property owners just didn’t work, he said.
Metro faced perhaps the most challenging proposition: how to move about 1,300 buses through a county blanketed by snow.
The agency initially put buses on snow routes, avoiding steep hills and unplowed side streets but later switched to its Emergency Snow Network, a skeleton set of about 60 routes and shuttles dedicated to arterials and transit centers. It was Metro’s first time using the network created after the notorious 2008 storm.
Some buses got stuck and others were running with chains, which in turn caused damage to some coaches, sidelining them and adding to delays.
Even before downshifting to its emergency network, only 65 to 75 percent of its usual peak commute fleet was running. As people fled downtown ahead of last Friday’s powdery barrage, packed buses passed some stops by.
Metro regularly posted information online and sent alerts by email and text message, and riders could text their stop numbers to 62550 to find out when buses were coming.
But apps like One Bus Away and Puget Sound Trip Planner didn’t reflect the snow routes and weren’t updated in real time, and there were no signs at stops about the route changes or cancellations, leaving many riders clueless.
“The city has to decide what it wants to be: a big small town where everyone drives, or a densely urban area where a large majority uses mass transit,” Licton Springs resident Kimberly Burch wrote in response to the Times poll, giving the city an ‘F’ and Metro a ‘D’ for failing to properly prepare.
With the area ankle-deep in snow, Metro received four times as many calls as usual looking for help, spokesman Jeff Switzer said, noting it would have been nearly impossible to provide 8,000 stops with updated signs.
The agency heard from customers who “appreciated the core system we provided during the heaviest parts of the snowstorm” but also from riders who “want stronger tools” for trip planning during snow periods, Switzer said.
Mimi Boothby, who lives in South Beacon Hill, gave Seattle an ‘A’ grade and Metro a ‘B.’ The city has “come a long way” in treating main roads, but Metro’s website made it difficult to figure out route changes and reduced service, Boothby said.
Instead of taking the 107, Boothby walked a slick mile to light rail: “I’m 67 and if it weren’t for … shoe traction devices, I would have been stuck here for a week!”
Helping people outside
The message from officials to the area’s thousands of homeless people was simple: Come inside.
To facilitate that, authorities paid for hotel stays and set up hundreds of additional shelter beds at Seattle Center and two community centers. Seattle’s Navigation Team, which works with people sleeping on the streets, contacted more than 700 people and helped transport about 160 to severe-weather shelters.
Still, the frigid conditions proved deadly for a few. Derek C. Johnson died from hypothermia at the Sodo light-rail station on Feb. 7. The 59-year-old had no permanent address. The King County Medical Examiner’s Office reported two additional deaths Friday, including one in Seattle.
It’s too early to grade the response, said Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. But there’s a clear need for officials to prepare earlier so that people living outside know what emergency shelters will be open and how to access them, she said.
Most homeless people don’t have access to the internet, so “there should be flyers that you can physically hand out to people,” Eisinger said. Seattle spokesman Will Lemke said the Navigation Team distributed fliers with updated details of where to find emergency shelter as additional facilities became available.
John Kelly, head of public affairs and social impact at Starbucks, praised the city’s response.
As the storms worsened, the Durkan administration converted Garfield Community Center into a shelter for homeless families and people living in their vehicles. Mary’s Place and other organizations also opened additional shelter space for families.
“No child had to sleep outside,” Kelly said. “It shows that the problem of family homelessness is solvable.”
Hahn, the McGinn-era transportation chief, noticed a different mood than the 2008 storm. People seemed less angry, he said, crediting better coordination by the city — and lucky timing.
Because the 2008 flakes hit during the Christmas shopping season, there were “dire economic consequences,” Hahn recalled. This year’s bombardment arrived after the holidays and the closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Maybe residents stayed home and out of their cars this time around, exercising the personal responsibility many of them “had just demonstrated” during the three-week Highway 99 shutdown, Hahn said.
Then again, he said, the mood also could be attributed to people accepting that “with Seattle’s topography, there is only so much you can do.”