The Spokesman-Review


Our View: December storms got upper hand, never let go

Near nature? Near perfect?

Spokane has been way too near nature most of the past month, thank you very much, but the official response to snow problems has been far from perfect.

Only now is the region getting back to near normal since Dec. 17, when snow piled up 2 feet deep and froze evening commuter traffic in place.

Granted, December brought us abnormally severe weather, but the consequences didn’t have to be so troublesome. Indeed, a week before the storm struck, Spokane City Hall issued a statement reassuring the public that it was ready for winter, thanks in part to lessons learned from the previous winter’s challenges. Among other steps, the city had arranged with private-sector owners of snow-removal equipment so crews would be able to respond in force.

Still, they weren’t called into play for days after the onslaught began.

They probably should have been summoned the first day to attack the snow as it accumulated. Clearly, the weather got the upper hand on the snow-removal resources that were deployed.

Snow fell steadily all day, and by evening, downtown streets filled with vehicles that were penned in by South Hill route closures. Cars crept, full buses idled. Police sent out notices about chains and street closures, then rescinded them.

Impassable streets immobilized buses that night and rendered them unreliable for days. Spokane Transit Authority canceled many routes, truncated others and operated on sporadic schedules. At a time when Spokane residents most needed public transit, it couldn’t answer.

Businesses that tried to operate faced uncertainty about the delivery of goods or the ability of employees to get to work. City Hall itself sent staff home.

Eventually, the city identified critical corridors and plowed them repeatedly, a sound move that would have helped from the beginning. Motorists at least had a reason to try breaking free of their impounded neighborhoods.

But the city never really caught up with the head start it gave the storm that first day.

Schools closed and stayed that way even after the snow abated because streets were dangerously rutted and ice-packed, berms impaired visibility and sidewalks were buried in snow, putting children at peril if they walked to school.

Speaking of walkers, the city’s own comprehensive plan makes pedestrian consideration a top priority, but Mayor Mary Verner and other officials declined to enforce ordinances requiring property owners to clear snow from the sidewalks in front of their homes and businesses.

We recognize that snowstorms the magnitude of the ones that hit Spokane beginning Dec. 17 force some inconveniences and adjustments. But a city our size that aspires to success and prosperity can’t just capitulate to weather, even when it’s beyond the norm.

Next winter may be milder, which is what people thought after last winter’s experience. After two straight winters of major snow-removal difficulties, public agencies in the region must craft a workable plan for dealing with a major winter storm, whether it hits next week, next year or 10 years from now.

A vital element of such a plan should be a quicker response.

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