West Seattle snow aftermath: City Council action plan

conlin.jpgJust heard back from City Council President Richard Conlin (left), after e-mailing him to ask what kind of inquiries/hearings will ensue regarding Snowstorm ’08-related woes. We decided to ask him because he runs the Environment, Emergency Management, and Utilities Committee, so trash — among other things — would be under his auspices. He says a “more formal response” is coming out later today, but since we asked. First, a “full council briefing” is planned a week from today, January 5th. Next day, Tuesday 1/6, a joint meeting of his committee and the Transportation Committee (chaired by Councilmember Jan Drago, overseeing roads and snowplows among other things), “at which point we will go over the situation in detail and also have a public comment opportunity,” Conlin says, adding, “After that, we will lay out a set of issues to review and work on, and determine how we will involve the public and carry out the review. Our last review (after the 2006 windstorm/flooding) involved a set of joint meetings between EEMU and the Energy Committee, including an evening public comment time, and resulted in a work plan for the Utilities that made an important difference in the performance of City Light in particular in this situation — outages were relatively few (thanks to some proactive tree trimming and other preparation), and were handled and reported back to the public promptly (thanks to some better preparation and organization).” So if you want to address the council personally at your first opportunity, sounds like 1/6 will be your first chance. To e-mail or otherwise contact them now, seattle.gov/council will point you in every possible direction; Conlin’s info is here; Drago’s info is here; EEMU Committee info here; Transportation Committee here. We’ll let you know when times and places are set for the aforementioned meetings/hearings (and any others), and they’ll be on the WSB Events calendar (where we list meetings large and small, outside WS too when it’s of WS relevance like this, as well as other types of events). 2:48 PM UPDATE: The detailed “formal response” promised by Councilmember Conlin has just arrived in our inbox and we suspect many others – read on for the full text, which includes some times (will add to our calendar shortly):

Thank you for your message about the City’s storm response. We all were
impacted by the storm situation. Like most people, my regular bus route
did not run for ten days, and my street (a minor arterial) was not
cleared until December 27th. I wound up having to hike to get to City
Hall. I know that this was a very difficult situation for many in our
city, and I deeply regret the problems that people experienced.

The City must learn from this experience, review policies, procedures,
and equipment, and identify improvements immediately. The Council
cannot undue the difficulties the last few weeks have brought, but we
can make a genuine effort at learning from this situation and finding
constructive ways to do better.

We will review the City’s performance in this storm, with the goal of
identifying lessons learned and determining what specific steps can be
taken to improve the response. The council intends to create a work
plan that will implement those recommendations as soon as possible (the
storm season is far from over).

The City Council does not directly manage the departments and a number
of the policies and procedures for response to these kinds of situations
are administrative. We do have a responsibility to the public to
improve government response, provide the budget for training, new
equipment, if needed, and other improvements.

The Council*s review will begin on Monday, January 5, at our regular
Monday morning Briefings meeting, at approximately 10:15 AM. On
Tuesday, January 6, at 9:30 AM, there will be a joint meeting of the
Environment, Emergency Management, and Utilities Committee and the
Transportation Committee, at which we will look in detail at the City’s
actions and develop a list of action items to consider. There will also
be an opportunity to take public comment at the January 6 meeting. We
will then determine next steps, which may include an evening public
comment opportunity in the near future, as well as further joint
committee meetings and possible legislation.

This was an unusually difficult situation, and it is unlikely that any
strategy would have avoided all of the problems. However, there are a
number of specific things that could have been done to improve the
response. The Council’s task will be to evaluate these and learn
lessons that can be applied in the future. Among the questions we will
ask will be:

1. Was the City’s strategy of concentrating plowing resources to
create packed surfaces on arterials the right approach? If this may be
a proper response to snow which melts in a day or so, but how could it
be modified when faced with this kind of long-lasting snow experience?

2. Does the City deploy the right kind and amount of equipment? While
it would not be cost effective to purchase snow removal equipment that
is necessary for cities that experience snow much more regularly, there
may be other alternatives (such as equipping garbage trucks with snow
plows) that could multiply the City’s resources.

3. Would the use of salt make a major difference, and what are the
real environmental issues associated with it? Having lived in the
Midwest, I can confidently say that salt is not a panacea, and it is not
even clear that it would do better than the alternatives that were used,
but we should determine that based on facts about relative performance.

4. Could we use adaptive management strategies to modify the policies
and plans when it became clear that a change in direction might be
helpful, and what resources could we have in reserve to implement such a

5. What could be done to improve coordination with King County Metro
so that transit could be given the maximum opportunity to keep running,
instead of becoming a major part of the problem for people?

We have already begun receiving suggestions from the public for other
improvements and questions to consider, and I am sure that we will hear
more as we conduct the review.

Seattle Department of Transportation employees worked very hard to
respond to this unusual situation, many of them working 12 hour shifts
over the holidays. They deserve credit and thanks for their work and
dedication. The problems with the response are not their

Over the last several years we have had a number of *unusual*
weather events. It costs money to be prepared for these events, for
equipment, training and infrastructure. With climate change we are going
to be challenged in ways that are unexpected, different and impactful.
The City, businesses and residents must partner to find the best ways to
deal with each unique situation as it arises. To this end, throughout
2009, the City Council will also focus on the larger issues of
adaptation strategies and policies to meet the challenge of climate
change. We will not be able to be perfectly prepared for everything,
but we will look at the systems we have in place, our decision-making
practices, and predictions of hazards and impacts and develop innovative
practices, flexibility, and training that can make the city more
resilient to the unexpected.

7 Replies to "West Seattle snow aftermath: City Council action plan"

  • Tony Wright December 29, 2008 (11:15 am)

    I think they did fine. Obviously, they could do a bit better, but it’s NOT a good idea to over-prepare for things that happen once every 20 years… Buying millions of dollars of assorted heavy equipment, having staff available, training, etc… It all has a cost that comes right out of our pockets.

    The right response for the 20-year storm is to hunker down, do the best with what we have, and wait for it to melt.

  • Andrea December 29, 2008 (11:50 am)

    Tony, you nailed it. I was one who was stuck in my neighborhood for many days. But, I made the best of it in every way.

  • Rick December 29, 2008 (2:29 pm)

    I suppose spending many millions of dollars for a system that doesn’t work is an alternative. Job security at it’s best.

  • drb December 29, 2008 (4:42 pm)

    @tony, @andrea, @rick

    I don’t see the part in Conlin’s response where he advocates spending millions of dollars. In fact he explicitly says that buying additional snow removal equipment would not be cost effective.

    What exactly would be wrong with additional training for city and metro staff? What is the problem with attempting to identify ways that the city and metro can respond better during and after the next snowstorm?

    Two years ago (not 20) Seattle had a nearly 2-week ice/snow situation that also shut down the city for a number of days. The city and metro failed to learn anything from that, apparently. Had they taken some initiative then to improve their planning and training we might have had a better outcome this time around.

    ‘Making the best of it’ and ‘hunkering down’ are certainly stategies to embrace, I guess. But ‘effective management’ and ‘effective emergency planning’ and ‘flawless execution’ are better goals.

  • BG39 December 29, 2008 (5:51 pm)

    drb, thank you for confirming what I thought about 2 years ago and the ice and snow. I knew it wasn’t 20 years ago like everyone has been saying, but I started doubting whether it had happened or was just in my head. A couple years before that there was another big snow that had it very hard to get off the side streets.

  • AlkiRagdoll December 29, 2008 (7:31 pm)

    I’m sorry to disagree with those posting before me. Originally, I thought the same as you. However, talk to someone in the emergency preparedness business, as I did at Sea-Tac last week, and they tell ya that all the city has to do is issue a Reuqest for Proposals for firms that are on-call in cases of emergency – such as this type of snow event. They dont need to buy the equipment. However, when an emergency event occurs and the city doesnt have the resources, they invoke the contracts (such as the private contractors noted in the Times that have the equipment). Private enterprise can then kick into action to solve the problem — whether its the weather, or some other crisis. There is no excuse that so many had to loose income for over a week. Seattle City council needs to learn from others … imagine a crisis more severe than three major weather systems. How prepared are we really for those events???

  • mike December 29, 2008 (11:13 pm)

    I’m confused how more training would help? Throughout this whole thing I was confused why the ice was not being removed, then I learned that Seattle refuses to use salt. I think its an admirable goal but at what cost. I like Seattle’s basic plan of only plowing major roads, however It appears they do not have enough equipment to execute their plan. Leaving the articulated buses out to jackknife is scary.

Sorry, comment time is over.