Meteorologists predict 4 to 6 inches of accumulation through Saturday morning, and cold temperatures ensure it'll stick around for days.
Western Washington residents might not have been ready for the first snowstorm that hit the region this week, but they certainly took the second seriously.
Commuters left work early Friday in a mass exodus, bringing rush hour to the region a few hours early. Residents cleared out grocery stores as they stocked up for the 4 to 6 inches of snow expected from Everett to Tacoma, which could stick around for days as temperatures linger around freezing.
In anticipation of poor road conditions, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency Friday, and King County Metro activated emergency snow service, meaning only 60 core routes would operate Saturday and possibly longer.
In a warning ahead of the snowfall, King County Executive Dow Constantine called the storm a “once every decade or two occurrence.” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan described a “potentially very dangerous storm.”
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“Our number-one goal is to keep people safe,” she said.
Freezing temperatures ahead of the storm were fatal for a 59-year-old man, who was found dead from exposure at the Sodo light-rail station early Thursday morning. Emergency shelter operations have expanded as shelters neared or exceeded capacity this week, and officials have urged people to call 211 for resources in King County.
The snow came in waves Friday, and was expected to accumulate 4 to 6 inches from Everett to Tacoma by Saturday morning, said meteorologist Kirby Cook with the National Weather Service in Seattle. The Seattle area was expected to see snow accumulations on the lower end, while areas to the east will get closer to 6 inches, he said.
“Eight is still possible, but it’s looking less likely. That’s the worst-case scenario,” Cook said of earlier estimates.
Thanks to the early arrival of the snow, major roadways hadn’t seen much accumulation by Friday evening, Cook said. Warmer temperatures and traffic kept roads mostly clear.
Commuters weren’t willing to risk it, though, and evening rush hour came early as students were let out and commuters decided to head home early in the storm. Roads within and leaving Seattle were congested at 2 p.m.
Just an hour later, commute times on common routes were double — and in some cases nearly triple — the usual, according to the Washington Department of Transportation. Traffic was heavy or stop-and-go on Interstate 5 for much of the stretch between North Seattle and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
King County Metro riders reported being passed by multiple packed buses. As many as 300 buses were out of service in the wake of earlier damage and maintenance, and Metro was operating with about 65 percent of its peak commute fleet at the height of traffic, spokesman Jeff Switzer said. Crews had to retrieve 175 buses stuck in ice and snow earlier this week, and often found broken lights, chains wrapped around axles, or battered fenders, he said.
Travel times started to improve about 4 p.m., and by the time the usual rush hour came along, traffic was practically nonexistent on I-5.
Metro announced that service would be reduced to just 60 high-ridership, low-slope routes beginning Saturday at 4 a.m. until further notice. Many will also be on snow detours. Riders can text the number of their bus stop or shelter to 62550 to get an update on the next buses to arrive.
Metro’s emergency snow reductions Saturday will take some 178 routes off the network. The plan has been on the books a few years but this is the first time it’s been needed, Switzer said. Metro will make changes, and possibly restore some routes and trips, on a day-by-day basis, he said.
Light rail remains on normal schedules, and “ice trains” will run overnight, to scrape away any buildup on the overhead power wires.
The snow was expected to end by Saturday afternoon, but drivers will be left with icy road conditions, as nighttime temperatures could drop into the teens this weekend, Cook said.
The snowstorm may be packing a softer punch in Seattle than some residents had expected, but it slammed the northern Olympic Peninsula. Some areas saw 12 inches of snow by 6 p.m. and may get another 3 inches overnight, Cook said.
Snow has also been heavier to the east, in Issaquah, Renton and the Highlands, where residents had seen up to 6 inches by Friday evening, Cook said. Persistent snowfall in Snohomish County also led to higher accumulation there.
About 1,540 Puget Sound Energy customers had lost power by 6:15 p.m. in Issaquah, according to the energy utility. Outages have also been reported in Renton, Auburn and Redmond.
A winter storm warning is in effect for parts of Western Washington through 4 p.m. Saturday, although the weather service may revise that depending on conditions.
There’s a chance there will be more snow from Seattle southward Sunday night into Monday, and then again Monday night into Tuesday, Cook said. It’s possible 2 to 5 inches of new snow could accumulate over this period, the weather service predicted Friday night.
Even if that doesn’t happen, the snow from this weekend will likely stick around for a bit, and Monday morning’s commute may be difficult.
“It’s just going to get colder and things might refreeze,” Cook said. “It will stay cold through the weekend and into at least the middle of next week.”
Officials warned people to be careful with home heating devices to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Generators and grills should not be used indoors, and even indoor space heaters often aren’t designed to run around the clock, Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said.
Inslee declared a statewide state of emergency in anticipation of the effect the snowstorm would have on roads, activating the State Emergency Operations Center to coordinate response. The declaration allows drivers carrying milk products and de-icing road salt to work more hours than typically allowed.
The weather also interfered with flights at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday, where there had been 223 flight cancellations and 312 delays as of 9 p.m., according to FlightAware.
Seattle Times reporters Paige Cornwell and Mike Lindblom contributed to this report.