Wednesday snow harries commuters
City engages response as storm chokes roads, and snow keeps falling
A massive snowstorm dumped what was approaching record levels of snow on Spokane on Wednesday, triggering a nightmarish afternoon commute that officials warned may not be much better this morning.
Conditions became so bad at one point that the Spokane Police Department declared in a news release that “motorists should consider ALL streets closed in the City of Spokane” except a few major arterials. The announcement also said chains were required for South Hill travel.
But by then, thousands of drivers already were stuck in Seattle-style traffic jams as folks fled work early.
“Everybody left at that 4 o’clock time, and it just became mass chaos,” said Spokane Street Director Mark Serbousek.
City street officials said snow removal work came to a crawl during the evening commute as plows got stuck in the jam. Eventually, police were called to escort some plows to get them moving on their routes.
Bob Tobin, National Weather Service meteorologist, said that Spokane International Airport had received 11 inches of snow by 10 p.m. An additional 4 inches was possible by morning, with 2 to 4 more inches expected today. The 24-hour record in Spokane is 13 inches, which came in January 1950.
The snow triggered a rash of accidents throughout the day, including several that blocked Interstate 90 in Post Falls and Spokane. Icy conditions forced closure of most of the hilly arterials in Spokane for a period. Spokane police said officers in the city and county were called to nearly 100 accidents by early afternoon, including some with injuries, though most were reportedly minor. In North Idaho, state police reported 65 accidents by 5 p.m. The Washington State Patrol responded to about 200 wrecks Wednesday in Eastern Washington.
Among those experiencing Wednesday’s challenging drive home, South Hill resident Dawn Carlton had spent three hours and a third of a tank of gas trying to get from downtown to 29th Avenue – and she still wasn’t home as of 6:30 p.m. Her attempt to use High Drive was blocked by police. She went back downtown and eventually parked at the Fred Meyer on Thor, where she hoped to buy chains. “I kind of wish I would have just stayed at work,” she said. “I would have been more productive.”
Carlton may not have needed chains after all – at least not under the law. At a news conference Wednesday night, top city public works officials and City Administrator Ted Danek said they were unaware that police had sent out the chain-up order and what amounted to the closure of almost the entire city street grid. Soon after they confirmed that police had sent the message, they said the massive closure and chain-up order were no longer in effect – if they ever were.
“We had some confusion in our communication, and we’ll get to the bottom of it,” said Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said. She also experienced Wednesday’s frustrating commute, spending more than an hour trying to get from City Hall after work to pick up her son at school.
City officials said with traffic finally clearing out by about 7 p.m., they were poised to make significant progress on arterials. But, they said, the forecast of continued heavy snow means roads will remain treacherous in the morning.
Serbousek said even though chains aren’t required, residents should use them if they think they need them. Officials implored drivers to leave plenty of space between cars and to avoid blocking intersections during traffic jams. They also asked drivers not to take chances.
“This isn’t the time to find out if you can climb up the Monroe Street hill,” said Public Works Director Dave Mandyke.
Spokane street crews were ordered into “condition red” status Wednesday afternoon. As a result, the city began bringing in overtime staff to speed clearing efforts and – after main roads are clear – plow in neighborhoods.
The frigid temperature – Spokane’s high was 16 degrees Wednesday – added to the problems.
Earlier in the day, the city experimented with using de-icer on a small stretch of pavement. It froze. So instead, crews spread only sand.
County Engineer Bob Brueggeman said county crews, which handle unincorporated portions of the county and Spokane Valley, continued using a limited amount of de-icer to soften snow after determining that pavement temperature in some places was above 20 degrees, warm enough for it to work.
Depending on how much more snow falls, city and county officials said crews may not start plowing flat residential streets until Friday. County spokeswoman Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter asked for patience from residents who likely will have to remove piles of plowed snow left in front of driveways.
Under Spokane’s condition red, which is activated when snowfall reaches 4 inches, the city increases its street clearing staff from 22 to 37 workers in the daytime and from 14 to 24 at night, Mandyke said. Those staff members will work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, until the plowing is complete.
The city also decided to pull workers from its sewer and water departments starting today. Serbousek said commercial driving rules prevent those extra workers from starting earlier because most of those employees had worked a full shift already Wednesday. The city also announced that after crews enter residential streets, they’ll begin using their 10 street graders.
The decision to use graders comes much earlier than during the city’s last severe storm, in January. That snowfall was the first time in more than a decade that the city used graders for winter clearing operations. Among other changes from last year, the city is updating plowing status online at www.spokanestreetdepartment.org and has readied agreements with contractors to speed residential plowing. A decision on whether to use the outside help will be made later, officials said.
Forecasters said Kootenai County appeared to be in the storm’s bull’s-eye. On the West Plains of Spokane, snow was falling at a rate of 2 inches an hour about noon with the band of heavy snow headed east into Kootenai County. Snow was described as light and powdery by forecasters.
The main message from county and city leaders was a request for patience. “Please be careful. Watch out for your neighbors,” Verner said. “It’s a time to pull together as a community to help people out.”
Staff writer Meghann M. Cuniff contributed to this report.