(2:35 PM note: Archived video of the briefing is now available online – the storm discussion begins halfway through the 2-hour clip.)
(December 21 photo by Ian)
What happened in December wasn’t the “typical” Seattle storm, two city department heads reiterated, repeatedly, this morning, while presenting City Councilmembers with the first of several briefings they have requested regarding how said storm was handled. The briefers: Office of Emergency Management director Barb Graff and Seattle Department of Transportation director Grace Crunican. What they said, and what councilmembers said, ahead:
Up first: Graff. One of her opening lines: “The city has done an excellent job of (handling) typical storms … but this is the third year I find myself up in front of you (talking about) another 100-year storm.”
She mostly handed out compliments to other departments and agencies for “responsive cooperation,” even the National Weather Service for inviting the city to a “webinar” when the pre-snow cold snap kicked in on December 11th. At the time, Graff said, “We were most worried about a wind alert. We geared up our plans for possible power outages.”
Two days later, of course, the snow began. Graff said Emergency Management “increased staffing to major incident mode” for December 20-21 and shared a lot of information along the way, with councilmembers and others. She added that her team hasn’t had time for a major debriefing because “they’re still working” — preparing now for the possibility of flooding if heavy rain and higher temperatures arrive later this week as forecast.
She also discussed stressing emergency readiness – not just for private citizens, but also for private companies (after discussing the now-notorious Greyhound terminal incident), and a hope of enlisting more “neighborhood volunteers.”
That’s where Council President Richard Conlin asked a follow-up that may have been related to a brief meeting in which we participated, with him and West Seattle neighborhood-preparedness advocate Cindi Barker, last week: “There are lots of helpful comments being posted on community blogs … Do we have a way of (harnessing that) to monitor situations we might not know about yet?”
Graff said yes, there’s a “section of (a) team” monitoring such websites and conventional news media, “so we are having a conversation.”
West Seattle-residing City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen then brought up another issue that we have called attention to here (read our 12/27 editorial) — specific, real-time information for residents. He used the example of City Light outage information in particular, and having tried to help a constituent who couldn’t get accurate information about an outage at her/his house. “Maybe there are other ways of giving real-time information,” he suggested to Graff, “so that people at least know whether to change their plans.”
Graff agreed that the city should “identify … that there are more ways of communicating more accurately with people … and how we can institutionalize (that) … But we are not even in the recovery phase yet.”
Rasmussen also offered, more to his colleagues than to the department heads, that a discussion is in order to determine the council’s most useful role during an emergency — perhaps, he suggested, monitoring what’s happening and taking calls, making sure the information that’s being received is accurate.
Segueing to her counterpart from the city Department of Transportation, Graff noted that while passable roads were a major concern during the snow situation, “In preparing for our worst emergency – in my mind, it’s a catastrophic earthquake, and the streets won’t be passable for a long, long time.”
With the road situation having drawn so much flak during the worst of the snowiness, SDOT boss Grace Crunican was on much more of a hot seat than Graff had been. She too cautioned that “this is preliminary because we’re still operating” (in storm mode).
She had some numbers – The city’s road-clearing efforts focus on “1,531 lane miles of primary and secondary arterials … along with bridges (and) streets leading to hospitals,” but that’s less than a sixth of the city’s 10,000 or so TOTAL lane miles of roadway.
“The question we’re asking ourselves,” she said, “is when we (should be going with) ‘the snow plan’ vs. ’emergency event’ … (In this case) we went to … something extraordinary.”
“HOW extraordinary?” asked Councilmember Richard McIver. Crunican was ready with more numbers, saying the average December Seattle snowfall is 2.2 inches, but these storms left more than 13 inches of snow and ice behind. That was less than the 17.9 inches of the 1996 storms, she acknowledged, but noted those happened over a shorter period of time.
“And then it rained and we had landslides,” interjected City Councilmember Jan Drago.
Crunican also said her department didn’t “feel the love” for forecasters that Graff had voiced, because the storms left behind far more snow than was forecast. (Crunican, by the way, also grimaced about how last night’s forecasts were inaccurate as well – saying they’d been told to expect from a trace to an inch, and that it would be over by 8 pm; “By 8 pm, we were measuring 4 inches in West Seattle,” she noted dryly.)
And she claimed the now-famous Seattle Times article that touched off the salt vs. no-salt uproar was not necessarily accurate. Asked about that article’s mention of the city having a policy of packing snow on streets to make them more passable, Crunican insisted, “We plow to bare pavement.”
So an SDOT official didn’t say anything about a packed-snow policy? she was asked. Her reply: “I believe it was a newspaper reporter’s rendition of what was said to the newspaper reporter. We have steel blades, they plow to the pavement, and to the center. Reading that, you’d think we were using spatulas.”) She confirmed that some salt was used, because the snow did reach at least 4 inches in some areas (see details of last night’s salt usage in this WSB post), and also reaffirmed that the city’s policy is to plow to the center of the road, not to stack up snow on the side and potentially block cars.
(December 24 WSB photo)
More numbers: In addition to the city’s 27 snowplows — up from 10 in 1996, she reminded the council — she said SDOT utilized 10 backhoes and operators from other city departments, as well as the grader lent by the Parks Department:
(December 26 photo by Creighton)
And, she said, two contracting firms were used for “about 2 days” at the height of the snow, to help plow arterials. “We met our goal of keeping arterials, bridges, and routes to hospitals open and safe. … The question arises, was that enough? People say they couldn’t get out of their residential streets. We are not set up to clear residential streets. (It would be) an extraordinary workload, to staff up for what only comes every 20 years.”
Then: The problem that compounded the street situation, the Metro trouble. “Part of our plan,” Crunican acknowledged, “is to say ‘take the bus’ … It certainly didn’t work very well this time, and we know that.”
According to Crunican, Metro director Kevin Desmond will be attending tomorrow’s storm-response briefing at a joint meeting of two Council committees. She said she worked closely with him throughout the snow event, but acknowledged the need for a further “safety net of communication.” Today, for example, she said that Metro did not have a representative at SDOT’s Charles Street dispatch location “because they didn’t feel it was a significant enough (snow) event,” which clearly raised council eyebrows.
She and Rasmussen had an energetic exchange over another issue of Metro presence, or non-presence, at a city event – Desmond not having attended a city news briefing during the peak of the weather problems. Crunican said she considered his non-presence at that “press conference” to be a “nothingburger,” and Rasmussen spiritedly disagreed.
“It’s (a function of) leadership to be present in a time of trouble …” he began. “Were all the relevant city directors here and on duty and here full time, and was the mayor?”
Graff jumped in to mention having created a “Mayor’s Emergency Executive Board” in the past year and to say it did convene. Crunican pressed the point that she believed working directly with Desmond and others was more important than having them present at a press conference.
“The point is the engagement of leadership,” Rasmussen repeated, and asked again about who was on hand during the snowiest days pre-Christmas, and who wasn’t. Crunican said the mayor and Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis were in town, while saying she went to Portland “for a couple days … I was on the phone with my people the whole time. And I was here on the 22nd and the 26th.”
Talk then turned back to Metro coordination. She said, “Every year we ask them about (the snow routes SDOT plows) and say, ‘is this good for you?’ and every year they say ‘yes’.” But she agreed further discussion seems to be in order because, despite that, so many buses had trouble traveling their routes.
“Complaints about Metro are at the top of the list of what I got calls about,” noted Councilmember Tim Burgess.
A few other “getting around” issues arose at that point. If side streets aren’t plowed, Councilmember Drago asked, then how far are people expected to walk, at the most, to get to a street that IS going to be cleared? “Less than a quarter mile,” Crunican replied, “maybe three or four blocks? You should have an arterial within that distance.”
At that point, Drago said she wants to discuss “the sidewalk issue tomorrow.” Graff interjected that property owners are responsible for clearing sidewalks. Drago shot back, “I don’t think everybody knew that … I think that’s a huge educational issue. I would guess a lot of people don’t even own shovels.”
Conlin added, “I heard a lot of anecdotes about people on a block sharing a single shovel.”
Over and over again during today’s meeting, councilmembers and department heads alike praised city workers for their hard work. “But,” Councilmember Rasmussen concluded, “I think they were overwhelmed by the severity of the storm — and that’s the challenge of emergency planning, to be ready for that 20-year storm.”
Tomorrow’s briefing will include utility issues, particularly the trash/recycling/yard-waste pickup challenges, and will include a public-comment period; it’s scheduled to start at 9:30 am Tuesday in council chambers at City Hall.