The governors of Washington and Idaho declared emergencies in the Inland Northwest on Thursday as communities wrestled with abundant snow from three major storms in less than a week.
Gov. Chris Gregoire said her declaration covering 15 Eastern Washington counties will help officials prepare if conditions worsen and cut red tape to help hire plowing contractors.
But Spokane city and county officials questioned the move.The declaration comes with no state funding, and it was unclear if state equipment would be available.
“I don’t think it means anything,” Spokane County CEO Marshall Farnell said. “If it somehow puts us in line for reimbursement of the $2 million we will spend in January, then great, we’re all for it.”
Gregoire said her declaration will not help pay for snow removal. “We are not to that level of emergency,” she said.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter declared a disaster emergency for Bonner, Kootenai, Latah and Boundary counties. Kootenai County, along with the cities of Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls, Hayden and Spirit Lake, declared their own states of emergency with the intent to secure state assistance.
Kootenai County Commissioner Rick Currie said concerns are mounting that buildings collapse under heavy snow, and snow-removal crews are working around the clock.
Conditions prompted the Panhandle Health District to close early Thursday, and district offices in Idaho’s five northern counties will remain closed today
Spokane Street Director Mark Serbousek said he’s hopeful all residential streets will be plowed by Saturday. Spokane County Engineer Bob Brueggeman said the county hopes to finish its first pass through streets by today.
“I have lived in this area all my life and I have never seen the roads this bad before,” said Jan Branting, who lives near Hamblen School in Spokane. She said the response doesn’t seem as quick as it should be.
At a press conference Thursday, Mayor Mary Verner apologized for hardships caused by the storm, but said the city has done everything possible to respond to the fourth-snowiest January on record. Crews are working day and night, she noted, and the city has rented extra equipment and hired contractors that joined the effort Thursday.
“We recognize that this has been a tremendous hardship on our citizens, businesses, our parents and our schoolchildren,” Verner said. “Folks, it’s just snow and we’re doing the best we can to remove it.”
Spokane County Undersheriff Jeff Tower said some parts of southern and western Spokane County may not be accessible to emergency vehicles because road crews have been unable to penetrate drifting snow. On Thursday, he said, a deputy used a snowmobile to get to a household that reportedly ran out of food.
Gregoire’s declaration may help school districts: Students might not have to make up missed days. The declaration will allow districts that canceled school to get a waiver from the state’s requirement of 180 class days a year. Without waivers, most districts would need to extend classes into the third week of June. Those make-up days could conflict with high school graduations and family vacations. Even with waivers, however, districts must provide 1,000 hours of instructional time, state officials said.
Spokane school officials said they are calculating whether the district can meet the 1,000-hour rule and how many days they could waive.
Spokane students are off today for semester break, but they missed the rest of the week because of poor road conditions. If the district doesn’t get a waiver for all four days, spring break could be shortened to make sure seniors receive the required hours before graduation, said Superintendent Nancy Stowell.
“If you count how many days they have now and take away four, they can’t make that up at the end of June. They are gone,” Stowell said. “That would force us to look at spring break.”
Most school superintendents said they plan to pursue the waivers under the governor’s declaration.
Emergency in Spokane
In Spokane, many officials expressed surprise at Gregoire’s declaration. County commissioners and Verner said they hadn’t asked for the declaration. Other city and county administrators said that when they examined the possibility of declaring an emergency earlier this week, they were told by state officials there was little if any state equipment available to help clear streets.
Gregoire said the state was told by the county’s Department of Emergency Management that it would prepare a declaration. “These folks are strapped and they need partners, and I need to activate that without, candidly, bureaucratic procedures,” she said. On Wednesday, Tom Mattern of the county’s Emergency Management department indicated in an e-mail to Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg, who leads the state’s emergency efforts, that Spokane County was preparing to declare an emergency.
“Advising that I will have the County of Spokane declaration tomorrow (unknown exactly what time) and will forward it off as soon as I get it,” the e-mail said.
Mattern could not be reached for comment late Thursday.
Lowenberg said the state has been trying to find extra equipment to use in Spokane County. It so far has found some in British Columbia, he said. The city or county would get the bill if it’s used.
Serbousek, the street director, said the city won’t ask for the equipment because streets likely will be cleared by the time it arrived.