West Seattle snow aftermath: “NOT back to normal” (yet)

(SW Sullivan looking east from California SW [map], one of many slushy side streets)
The temperature’s in the 40s, rain is falling, snow is receding. And yet, normalcy does not instantly return, as noted via Facebook by Talani from Stor-More Self-Storage (WSB sponsor) on steep SW Yancy east of Avalon (map):

I think it’s important for our neighbors to know that everything is NOT back to normal…I know people are driving again on the main streets, and that we are seeing more blacktop than we have in 2 weeks, but we still have dangerous conditions on side streets, in parking lots and on the Stor-More property. The places a lot of residents, seniors, handicapped and others want to go, they still cannot get to. We are still snowed in on Yancy, because while we can get out of our driveway and up a street, we cannot go to places we want to go to, and park in their lot. Armed with only one shovel, it’s impossible for us and others to get every last place that has snow and ice, when we have 3 huge buildings…the result is that tenants are arriving very confident because our driveway is blacktop between 2 mountains of snow, but they are getting stuck on the property and we are having to push their vehicles with our hands to keep them from crashing into other vehicles on property. Still snow!!!

Talani also notes that while the U.S. Postal Service has braved conditions every day to get mail to Stor-More, which has public mailboxes (including the WSB business box), UPS and FedEx haven’t made it there in a week, even though some of their customers have been told the packages were delivered.

(WSB editorial-esque aside ensues:) This is what we are seeing as the central problem for how multiple large businesses and government agencies served citizens during Snowmare ’08 — not so much which actions they did or didn’t execute, in terms of delivering, plowing, etc., as the failure to communicate clearly, quickly, reliably, SPECIFICALLY< about what is or is not being done, when it will be done, and WHERE it will be done. Sadly, this was the same problem during the last weather-related crisis in our area -- the power outages following the December 2006 windstorm. We were without power for almost 4 days; some in West Seattle were power-less for a week. People managed to cope -- but were desperate for information on "when are the crews coming to my neighborhood?" The uncertainty often seemed to take a heavier toll than the outage's actual side effects. As much as knowledge is power, a knowledge deficit is not only powerlessness, but also brings stress. Of course we must say, yet again, that we are WELL aware many good people in these large businesses and government agencies worked themselves to a frazzle to do the best they could. Snowplow drivers, mail carriers, city and county media-relations people trying to gather and share the latest general information, and answer questions from all us media types, small and large, police officers and firefighters slogging their way to incidents big and small. The point isn't that nobody tried. The point is that at a different level, beyond the people-power on the street, technology exists now to get SPECIFIC, REAL-TIME information to people - so that the uncertainty can be lessened. This was NOT a crisis that destroyed infrastructure; the power stayed on, the servers ran, the computers worked, the cell towers stayed up, the phones worked. But they did not deliver SPECIFIC, REAL-TIME information, reliably, to the people desperate for it. We hope that the IT people and the customer-service people will have serious post-mortems that result in real action plans. Why weren't the "bus trackers" accurate? What do you need to put on a bus to figure out where it is, and how can you crunch code to translate that information into something customer-accessible showing just how far behind schedule Route X is running and how far off its route it really is? For snowplows and power crews -- certainly they are dispatched from somewhere, by somebody keeping track of where they are now, and where they are going next. Can that information be multipurposed so that customers - who the city claims it puts first - will have a better idea of how soon, if at all, they will get help getting out of their streets? This will require true brainstorming sessions, the "no bad ideas" kind. We fear the discussion could get bogged down in concern over whether certain corporate/government computer systems will work well with each other. Don't get caught up in that. Similar problems have hampered old-media organizations (including at least two megacorporations where we worked) in their efforts to leap into the new-media world. Use the same out-of-the-box tools us civilians use. State/county/local government did use Twitter, for example, to some degree, during Snowmare ’08 — unfortunately not with many specifics — mostly to send out the news-release links, or generalized lines (the experimental Twitter account “sdotsnow” was last heard from on Christmas Eve, with “Primary roads are wet with some slush. Secondary arterials the focus through the night. Temps helping with work”). Seattle Police are using WordPress (same open-source content-management system that is the underpinning of WSB and millions of other blog-format websites) to power the almost-blog-like SPDBlotter site.

We don’t have the solutions but we did want to point out that from our standpoint, watching WSB’ers use the comments sections of our snow-coverage posts to share specifics about bus-route realities and UPS-truck sightings (among many other things), the communication methodology and comprehensiveness are what require the real work after everyone has recovered from this — much more so than “salt vs. sand” or “articulated buses vs. standard.”

25 Replies to "West Seattle snow aftermath: "NOT back to normal" (yet)"

  • ArborHeightsMom December 27, 2008 (1:50 pm)

    I am in violent agreement with this editorial. This city is so wired and technically savvy that our communication and problem solving in Seattle — and the WSB is a shining example of this — should be equally elegant and low cost. C’mon Mr. Mayor, time to step up with a plan. And if you don’t have the skill set on your team, then hire some consultants or others who can do it!

  • datamuse December 27, 2008 (1:51 pm)

    Communication and information channels are something that librarians (of which I am one) think about a lot, though our implementation isn’t necessarily better than anyone else’s (yet).
    I think part of it is that you really need to have a flatter organizational structure with lots of cross-communication between equivalent levels in different departments/agencies, and/or some group that is specifically tasked with coordinating that communication. I’ve seen very few organizations do this well.
    A model to look at could be those used by large-scale festival events; I’m thinking specifically of Burning Man, where friends of mine have volunteered for several years, and Bumbershoot, which I’ve worked as a public-facing information staffer since 2003.
    We also have to recognize that agencies aren’t necessarily any better at predicting the future than we are, and the severity of the weather these last few weeks surprised a lot of people. I was over at the FedEx station on S Alaska on Christmas Eve, and it was clearly in triage mode. They were doing a great job with the resources they had, but the resources they had weren’t adequate to what needs to be done.
    I’ve lived in places where winter weather this bad is the norm–Massachusetts and Maryland. The responses are better there, yes, but it STILL takes time to get all the streets plowed and mail and parcel delivery is STILL delayed. While I agree the city could have done a lot better this time around, I also think our expectations have to be realistic.
    Good communication can help a lot. People aren’t usually happy to be told that you don’t know when something will be taken care of, but in my experience, folks would rather hear that than be put off with vagaries.

  • sam December 27, 2008 (2:06 pm)

    very good editorial. one of the things that surprised me, though, was that there was no news conference at the beginning of all this where Nickels said- “this is what is happening in Seattle, and this is what we’re gonna do about it to keep some level of function-ability in the city”. not a news conference AFTER the worst of it, saying, “well, this is how our response was.” (B? yeah right!)

    If there was, I missed it, and it wasn’t good enough for sound bites to replayed on the news.

    was Nickels snowed in too ?

  • dcagen December 27, 2008 (2:09 pm)

    I like the first poster’s line that our solution can be “elegant and low-cost”. No need to get much beyond the basic internet tools that exist – blogs, facebook, twitter, etc. It is more about education then technology. More people from the non-digitized generations need to be comfortable utlizing the technological tools at our fingertips. Bummer is that the older set are in charge of things right now and can’t quite grasp why their kids are online all the time.

  • RS December 27, 2008 (2:16 pm)

    AMEN! Fixing the metro tracker and providing real, up-to-date data would have made things much easier to handle. It’s simply ridiculous that Metro can’t provide this in 2008!

  • Rasmus December 27, 2008 (2:39 pm)

    There is a very simple way to track buses, snowplows, powertrucks etc. It’s not new or even that expensive: GPS!

    I know that several businesses, such as UPS, already have it installed in their vehicles, and that they use the tracking information for internal performance evaluation. City Light, Metro etc. could easily share this with the public.

    Still, many businesses/services are unwilling to provide such a service. There are several excuses/reasons, from fear of terrorists using it to plan attacks, to employers not wanting to put extra pressure on the drivers.

    IMO, all of Seattle could have been spared most of the chaos, if they’d just salt the roads. I know, coming from a country where we have conditions like these every other year, and with very little effect on things like transportation, mail etc. The environment excuse is ridiculous, since sand/chemicals is just as bad, if not worse.

  • Scott B. December 27, 2008 (2:44 pm)


    I think it is important to note that “everything is not back to normal” does not mean the same thing as “not everything is back to normal.”

  • Michael December 27, 2008 (3:33 pm)

    The WSB editorial relays some important information about the average citizenry: Like WSB themselves, they’re more confused than anything, and from that confusion comes anger.
    “Why didn’t they do [insert complainer’s idea]?? It’s obvious, easy and cheap!!”
    Well, things usually aren’t as obvious, easy, and cheap as the layperson would like to believe.
    But one item to add to WSB’s editorial (I assume they didn’t add it because Stor-Mor is a sponsor: Why aren’t more merchants clearing their driveways and parking lots?
    Oh, and the “salt is the answer” argument makes me laugh for so many reasons. At this point, it’s basically an old wives’ tale.

  • Kelly December 27, 2008 (4:18 pm)

    At MANY business I have seen staff members/employees out battling with snow shovels and heavy flat nosed shovels trying to break up the accumulated ice and snow.

    Many of these businesses ARE trying to make their places of business available to their customers, anyone who thinks otherwise is just as badly informed and just as confused as they are trying to make everyone else out to be.

    I sat in the Morgan Thriftway parking lot watching guys who usually bag my groceries out scraping the lot, and in the Gas Station next to that 1 guy out there trying to get it cleared. over at the McDonald’s next to Thriftway… the owner and one of his employees working in tandem hacking at the ice with a heavy gardening shovel while the employee scooped it away with the snow shovel.

    It’s not that people aren’t trying… to think otherwise, well it’s ludicrous, uncaring and unthinking.

    MANY of the West Seattle businesses are small businesses and boutiques. When’s the last time you went into a boutique here in West Seattle and saw a staff of 15 standing around waiting to help you? I suppose though that unthinking people who gripe about businesses not doing a good enough job of fighting the elements, and shoveling their parking lots, would start complaining if they went up to one of our small businesses and saw a sign in the window “Be right back, shoveling our parking lot”.

    There is only so much people can do with their hands when dealing with melt off, then re-icing overnight, then more snow packed on top of that from the past couple weeks. To now, with melt off and icing over night… sorry but a snow shovel doesn’t cut it anymore when it is sheet ice.

    Had the city been more on top of this, rather than offer a bunch of lip service at the beginning of the storm news and then barely complying with the terms they set for themselves leaving this city rippled, by plowing down the roads and using a combination of sand and salt it would have helped.

    If the city couldn’t keep up with it, as is obviously the case here and understandably due to the lack of equipment et cetera, then just say so. Let the people know so the people can prepare. That is NOT too much to ask of our elected officials.

    Would salt make the snow go away? Nope.
    But it certainly would have helped.

  • Sue December 27, 2008 (4:33 pm)

    I agree that lack of information is a huge problem. When we had no power during the windstorm for 5 days, the worst part was that they’d tell us “you’ll probably have power back in a few hours” and then we didn’t. We were strung along for days. If someone could’ve just told us they had no idea, or that it could be days, we’d still be pissed off, but at least we could prepare, not be strung along with false hopes.
    In this storm, Metro was the big thing that annoyed me. To be told the buses are running on schedule but then you wait 2+ hours for it – that’s ridiculous. I understand that regular service wasn’t possible in some areas. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want some accurate information.

  • Forest December 27, 2008 (4:45 pm)

    Not so fast complimenting the bravery and unstayed rounds of the post office. Unlike the well-served folks at Stor-More, I haven’t received a single piece of mail, whether junk mail or weekly magazines or anything else, since last Monday.

  • Rasmus December 27, 2008 (5:18 pm)

    Michael, you obviously don’t know what you’re talking about, or you wouldn’t be so fast to dismiss salt. Laugh all you want, but if you’d spent most of your life with snow, blizzards and storms, you’d also know that it does work. Sand, however, does not, as is plainly obvious.

  • WSB December 27, 2008 (6:04 pm)

    Kelly @4:18p also has a very important point: Honesty goes a long way – not just to let people know what’s really true (“we’re overwhelmed, you’re going to have to fend for yourselves”) but also because it wins you trust. If the mayor had showed up at his Christmas Eve briefing and said “our people get an A for busting their butts but overall we get a C because no matter how hard we tried, we didn’t get all the streets in passable condition within 48 hours (etc.)” he would have gotten a lot more cred than showing up and saying the overall results merited a B. Even saying “C” when the results might have been more like a “D” goes a lot farther than saying “B” about a “D” situation.
    Michael – we never omit anything because of sponsorship status, and are always exceptionally clear and direct about who IS a sponsor – unlike most news sites. We are committed to mentioning who’s a sponsor EVERY SINGLE TIME WE TYPE THEIR NAME which is unprecedented so far as I know. Just for the record, for anyone new joining us.
    I don’t usually editorialize but the point about communication is the point I wanted to address, and that has nothing to do with who did or didn’t shovel their sidewalk/parking lot.
    However, if you are truly interested in what Talani and Brian at Stor-Mor did or didn’t do, join Facebook (if you’re not already on there), and look back at what she posted on our “wall” over the course of the entire ordeal. Among other things, daily traffic condition reports with photos and videos, the saga of how her husband and others helped dig a truck driver out of a snowpile on Yancy, and a lot more. True and genuine communication like that provided on WSB (and in the FB and Twitter infostreams we monitored and excerpted) by hundreds of other people, both private citizens and businesspeople, over the course of the past 2 weeks, let others know what things were/are like where they are, all around Seattle.
    I can’t speak for other merchants that didn’t send us such frequent direct reports (“direct” in this case was via Facebook, which means they were publicly accessible – I frequently mentioned that if folks joined Facebook and “friended” us, which so far almost 600 have, they would be able to see anything like that posted to us on FB – the volume of what they posted is far beyond the occasional excerpt I included in running WSB coverage), but IMO those folks are beyond impeachable for the service they provided during the course of our coverage – TR

  • Creighton December 27, 2008 (7:42 pm)

    The most important piece of communication I had during these snow days has been WSB. Didn’t mean that to happen, but little ole TR and her crew did more to keep my wife and I up to date than the entire King County government, no million dollar IT budget at their house, they just acted as a conduit for information, just taking it in and receiving it. Simple Twitter posts, a simple real time blog, photos from around the area, links to weather blogs, all very easy for the city to have done. The city of Seattle government froze (literally and metaphorically) in the face of adversity and failed their tax paying citizens. Let’s have West Seattle secede and vote in TR for mayor!

  • Elikapeka December 27, 2008 (7:59 pm)

    I’ll second that, Creighton!

    TR said what I’ve been thinking (more eloquently than I would have, that’s for sure.)

    I understand that this was an unusual event. But aren’t “unforeseen events” exactly what emergency management and planning is supposed to prepare for? The lack of coordination and communication has been very disappointing. There’s really no excuse for the poor response. And this was during a week when most schools were already closed, Boeing was on its holiday break, and lots more people are on vacation than usual.

    I guess the moral of the story is when you see those ads about being prepared to be on your own for three days in an emergency, better make that three weeks.

  • angelescrest December 27, 2008 (8:05 pm)

    Any political aspirations?

  • Carrie December 27, 2008 (8:26 pm)

    Here is an idea! Organize a neighborhood “SOS” SHOVEL OUT the SNOW/SLUSH on your own street… Four of my neighbors and I spontantenously worked together to shovel all the snow/slush in from the street in front of our homes yesterday because we figured no one is coming to plow this out. It was the best neighborly event that I’ve seen happen since the “Night Out” gathering.

  • WSB December 27, 2008 (9:53 pm)

    Re: politics – I’ve spent my life observing, reporting on, and writing about what everybody else is up to (role models including Harriet the Spy) and I’ll be thrilled enough to continue in that vein for another half-century or so …
    But do consider this : While there are other neighborhood-news sites popping up around the city, since we all together are a little bit on the leading edge of neighborhood news collaboration around here — and “collaborator” is how we describe any WSB’er, from the most avid commenter/Forum post’er to the most silent “reader” — I can tell you that your participation, comments, concerns, complaints, raves and rants actually do get read in surprising places … I get notes from people at various levels of government, for example, saying “I saw on (WSB) that some people were asking about …” So together we might just collectively become the neighborhood that roared. (Dunno if Hizzoner reads the site – but city and county councilmembers do, as well as some of your local legislators.) *** In fact, between the time I started writing this reply (leaving it open in a tab) and went back to post it, I’ve just received a note from Linda Thielke at Metro with some info related to our musings above. Will post separately after processing it – there’s one point in particular I want to research further – TR

  • Michael December 27, 2008 (10:58 pm)

    Rasmus, great example of confusion, mistaking de-icing mixture for plain sand. It is in fact a blend of safe de-icing chemicals mixed with a traction agent (sand.)

    The info is out there – I guess people figured that in the information age people would SEEK info, rather than expect it to be presented to them or operate on hearsay.

  • Michael December 27, 2008 (11:00 pm)

    Thanks for the personal attack, Kelly. Another example of confusion causing people to lash out.

  • Jen December 27, 2008 (11:33 pm)

    I totally agree with the point about communication; of *course* people were confused – random pieces of (often contradictory) information floating around everywhere, contingency plans on top of contingency plans, published and not, and no way to really make sense of it all (except from WSB collaborators). I think confusion naturally leads to anger in many cases.

    I agree that Metro needs to install GPS on the buses (I believe the trackers on the busses ping off of receivers along the routes, so once they go off route, the system breaks down) – I understand that they were planning to do so even before this debacle and imagine it’ll rate a higher priority in future budget planning. I also believe that Metro was/is facing some very large budget problems as their costs went up so dramatically with the spike in gas prices this past year and a good deal of their budget comes from sales tax monies, which have been shrinking due to the recession.

    I have to say I don’t know anything about the science behind the salt/sand/environment debate and need to read up further on it.

    I think the mayor’s ‘report card’ comment was absolutely ludicrous and shows that he’s out of touch with the populace and/or has a completely tin ear. I can only hope that he will face some good, smart competition in the upcoming election.

    It’s also likely that many small businesses were operating with limited staff as people were struggling to make it in to work with minimal bus service and dicey driving conditions. I can tell you that the sidewalk outside our house didn’t get shoveled promtly and that was very common throughout our neighborhood.

    And last, I agree that the solutions do seem simple to me (the Average Jen?) and I know that they likely are not. Goverment is hardly a lean mean beast that adapts quickly or can turn on a dime. I’m sure that there are many opposing tensions around each one of these issues; concerns about enviromental impact, budget, etc. Sadly, when a crisis like this hits, it really crystallizes what the consequences of some of those decisions are. Hopefully, there will be some real change that comes out of this and future emergencies will be better handled. We should all keep a close eye on our local government – I confess, I rarely have, but this has convinced me :-)

    Thanks so much to WSB and all you collaborators out there; this truly is an invaluable resource for our community!!

  • WSB December 27, 2008 (11:56 pm)

    According to Linda at Metro, GPS on buses has been in the works a while and is coming in 2010. I am trying to find more details before posting separately about this – she sent me that info, unsolicited, tonight, after reading this post, and I’ve been trying to find out more (after searches didn’t yield much, I sent her a followup question but not sure when I’ll hear back – she was one of those pre-dawn to post-dusk folks during Snowmare and certainly is issuing this info in her offhours) … TR

  • Kayleigh December 28, 2008 (6:15 am)

    Would it have been possible to declare a state of emergency sooner?
    How about city leaders encouraing employers (tax breaks, maybe?) to offer one paid snow day a year and/or incentives for setting up more employees to work at home?
    How about some real research and facts on salt vs. chemicals vs. sand in the Puget Sound area? I’ve read lots of opinions (many of them from people who lived in other cities, but aren’t ecosystems unique?) but could not find much real research.

  • k December 28, 2008 (1:07 pm)

    Thank you for the wonderful editorial. Like many others, WSB was our family’s source for information during the storm.
    During the wind storm we were out of power for 9 days and City Light kept insisting that we had power. (Well, could have fooled me!)
    I appreciate knowing something– even if it is “We aren’t going to be able to help you for several days”, rather than no info at all.
    It does promote trust and honesty, something that has been sorely lacking in government for sometime now.

  • Sue December 28, 2008 (6:05 pm)

    Kayleigh, I’m with you about incentives for paid snowday(s) and/or working from home. I’m a legal secretary – here’s no reason I couldn’t work from home (if my boss emailed me a pdf of revisions and I had access to the network). But my firm doesn’t believe in giving support staff remote access unless it’s approved by a partner and done in advance. Meanwhile, I lost 2 vacation days, 1 sick day, and will be docked for 2 other days – that’s qute a lot of lost time when I was perfectly able to work – except for not physically being present. When I get to work and my partner is back from vacation I will work on getting that permission for the future (this is the second time this has happened in 3 winters). Hopefully I will not ever need it!

Sorry, comment time is over.