Seattle snow aftermath: The $3.5 million storm, and what’s next

(added 12:25 pm – here’s a link to the full “after-action report” discussed today)

(12/18/08 photo from Chris, taken on Delridge ramp to West Seattle Bridge)
Members of three Seattle City Council committees just got an hourlong update from three city department heads, and one of their own analysts, on more hindsight regarding the December ’08 snowstorm woes, and what’ll be done to improve city response next time. The highlights: Emergency Management director Barb Graff says the storm was overall a “$3.5 million hit” to the city budget (Councilmember Jan Drago said she wished there’d been a report on the private-sector “hit” too), though there’s hope that federal disaster-relief dollars could help cover some of that, if a presidential proclamation is made (word is expected within a week). SDOT director Grace Crunican says the city now has two more snowplows: 29 total, up from 27. The two additions cost $40,000 each.

(12/18/08 photo from Saney, taken at California/Hanford)
With that equipment, and with up to 13 more pieces of equipment available from private contractors – who are now on a retainer that will cost $30,000 (plus actual usage fees) the first year, $15,000 the second, and no additional fee after that – she says the city will be able to commit to keeping 744 “arterial lane-miles” of key streets clear no matter what, for buses and cars to use. (Using West Seattle – where she lives – as an example, Crunican said that would include California, Delridge, and 35th. No specific cross-streets, we will be looking into whether the specifics are in writing somewhere.) More highlights from the discussion, just ahead (we’ll be adding links in the next half-hour or so but wanted to get out the gist of what was said):

Crunican also repeated, later in the meeting, that additional equipment was not called in sooner during the December snow mess because city leaders had “too insular a view” of how things were going: Basically, they thought they were meeting their goals, major roads were passable if you had a 4WD (which Crunican says she does and says she was using to “drive around the city” – though she’d also said at earlier meetings that she was out of town around Christmas to visit family members in Portland), so they didn’t call for reinforcements sooner. “It was our fault that we waited till it was too late.”

(12/18/08 photo from The Junction by WSB contributing photojournalist Christopher Boffoli)
She also mentioned operational changes – “field inspectors” will be used to “gauge road conditions”; snow-removal crews will move to 8-hour shifts after three days on 12 on/12 off “to reduce crew fatigue”; and SDOT will “educate the public about sidewalk clearing,” which is your responsibility if there’s one outside your home/business. There also was general discussion about making sure that public-information officers are properly deployed to provide and collect information (“neighborhood blogs” were mentioned more than once as potential sources of neighborhood-level information about storm conditions – and if you’ve been here since mid-December, you know how true that is for this neighborhood-news website). And she denied claims that the city wasn’t using every piece of snow-removal equipment at all times: “Simply not true.”

(12/18/08 photo of California, looking north from Thistle)
Acting Seattle Public Utilities director Ray Hoffman also provided a quick update on the solid-waste collection situation, which also caused no end of consternation during the snow woes. “We learned several things from this – our communications were weak, both with contractors out there collecting, and with customers. … We didn’t have a formalized incident-command system for solid waste collection, but we are moving to that now, along with a more rigorous review of our communications.” In the future, he said, they will “establish a more formal process for … disseminating public information,” and they’ll be more cautious about making promises – “we have to be more cautious about waiting to see what the weather actually does, before we tell customers what we are going to do.”

(December 22 photo from MargL in Arbor Heights)
So-called “reverse 911” to call customers with notifications was mentioned, along with – again – “increased use of neighborhood blogs” (WSB note: SPU spokespeople actually came out here to do an interview the snowbound evening of December 22, so they were ahead of the curve). He also said they now will be able to get crews out for collection on Sundays if they’re in a catch-up situation, as they were after the December storms, and he recapped the credit that we first reported here last week — 110,000 residential customers will get a $5 credit, about 6,000 business customers will get $10, for a total cost of $650,000. (“Followed by a surcharge to pay for it?” joked Councilmember Bruce Harrell, referring to the recent fire hydrant/water surcharge controversy – nervous laughter ensued.)

Overall, Graff says there are 60 recommendations, and the city’s “strategic work group will … keep this on the work plan until every single one of these is finished.” But most are just administrative changes and will not have direct costs, she added later, while also noting that the city’s budget director will speak to the council’s Budget Committee on Monday about costs incurred because of the storms.

About a dozen departments made reports to the mayor as well, Graff said in response to a question from City Council President Richard Conlin, who asked that those reports be provided to councilmembers before the day’s out. And then council “central staff” member Mike Fong provided his analysis of the reports that Graff, Crunican and Hoffman had just discussed, through the prism of council priorities: He compared them to the “after-action” reports following the December 2006 windstorm and, in a nutshell, said this report wasn’t quite as thorough. Conlin says everybody will gather again “in a month or so” to summarize all the reports and “in resolution form, lay out our expectations about followup.” He also wants to create some kind of “feedback loop” involving council members “so we can be more engaged during an emergency” – in previous storm discussions we’d covered, this came up, that councilmembers for example were getting lots of specific feedback from constituents, including reports on problems and concerns, but had no formal avenue of delivering it to city departments, whose bosses report to the mayor.

Conlin ended after this sharp note: “I’m going to make a fairly radical suggestion … If ‘reverse 911’ can’t be used in some form in a situation like this, it would be a real candidate for budget cuts.” Use it, or lose it. But then he sounded a conciliatory summary: “We can’t have a do-over of this storm, but we’ll be very prepared the next time it happens.”

ADDED 12:29 PM: This link is also at the top of this story – we e-mailed to ask for a copy of the “after-action report” and received it within minutes from Councilmember Drago. See it here.

ADDED 2:49 PM: We also sent a followup question to the council, after P, in comments, asked whether they’d want information from business owners to compile a report on private-sector losses because of the snow and its effects. Here’s the answer we received:

I do not believe as of this moment we are requesting information directly from business owners, but (Councilmember Drago) has asked department directors and our own analytical staff to look into the full financial losses that businesses experienced as a direct result of the snowstorm. If data collection will take place, I would presume it would be requested staff in city departments, and not directly by the Council, as they would best be able to analyze that information. She also mentioned that knowing those numbers can help us shape our future snowstorm (or other weather disaster) policies.

I would advise your readership to hang tight with that information for the present, but do know that business losses as a result of the storm are something we take very seriously.

Katherine Fountain
Legislative Aide

32 Replies to "Seattle snow aftermath: The $3.5 million storm, and what's next"

  • Save Our Streets Seattle February 20, 2009 (11:50 am)

    Did Crunican explain her lie in response to a question from Councilman Licata at the Seattle City Council on January 5th? Cruncian said, “We plow to BARE PAVEMENT. That is a policy.” She went on to say that the idea of “hard packed snow” was a “reporter’s rendition” of the policy. at around 82:30 into the video.

    Alex Wiggins who is CHIEF OF STAFF at SDOT sure seems sure in Susan Kelleher’s published Seattle Times article, “Seattle refuses to use salt; roads ‘snow packed’ by design” that the policy is NOT to plow to bare pavement.

    Cruncian: “We Plow to bare pavement. That is a policy.” Seattle City Council 1/5/09

    Wiggins: “We’re trying to create a hard-packed surface.” Seattle
    Times12/23/08 (while Cruncian was speeding down I-5 to visit her family in Portland while 80% of Seattle was snowbound and unable to get to any of the allegedly (though not actually) clear arterials.

    Wiggins also said on Dec 23 in The Seattle Times (in a fact-checked and vetted article), “the city’s 27 trucks had plowed and sanded 100 percent of Seattle’s main roads, and were going back for second and third passes.” But that was NOT true then and it was NEVER true. Seattle plows NEVER achieved “bare pavement” on ANY of the City arterials except the Alaskian Way Viaduct, parts of Aurora Ave, and the West Seattle Bridge.

    Why haven’t Cunican and Wiggins been fired for LYING
    OPENLY to the citizens of Seattle AND/OR the Seattle City Council?

  • P February 20, 2009 (11:50 am)

    is any agency setting up some sort of loss tracking device? I can submit my business loss amounts….

  • WSB February 20, 2009 (11:53 am)

    I am following up and will ask that.

  • Save Our Streets Seattle February 20, 2009 (12:01 pm)

    Would WSB be willing to state for the record that she is not personal friends with Grace Crunican?

  • WSB February 20, 2009 (12:05 pm)

    We have very few personal friends period. Not terribly social and there’s no time anyway. Wouldn’t even need one hand to list them all. Have never met nor seen Ms. Crunican outside a couple of news conferences – TR

  • Save Our Streets Seattle February 20, 2009 (12:16 pm)

    Thanks, I just had to check considering how everyone in the press is treating Crunican like an Angel of Mercy when she’s the #1 culprit in mismanaging her department in EVERY way possible during this storm, yet SHE still has a job while I’ve been laid off from mine (months ago). It’s kinda sickening.

    Thanks for checking on a loss-tracking agency. Save Our Streets Seattle has over 180 members, many of whom are small business owners who were devastated by the City’s inability to clear street for holiday shoppers.

  • WSB February 20, 2009 (12:21 pm)

    I also just received a copy of the full report and will add the link to the story here as soon as I re-upload it .. wrote to Drago, Conlin and a council aide and CM Drago sent it back quite quickly.

  • Wylie February 20, 2009 (12:34 pm)

    What a waste of money!

  • Jeri February 20, 2009 (1:32 pm)

    Grace Crunican thinks that a road usable only by 4 wheel drive vehicles is ok for the general public!! Not everyone has 4 wheel drive. We need a new SDOT Director that does not have a “let them eat cake” attitude.

  • 4wd not green February 20, 2009 (1:41 pm)

    How is that they try to make Seattle the greenest city in the US and then turn around and expect people to drive 4WD private vehicles to get around in the snow? You can’t have it both ways. Now that people are out of their cars and taking Metro, the service is non-exist in inclimate weather and there are proposed cutbacks in service due to budget issues.

  • Brandon February 20, 2009 (1:46 pm)

    SOSS, why not go the the Council meetings and be heard?

  • Save Our Streets Seattle February 20, 2009 (1:56 pm)

    Brandon, I’ve been to every City Council meeting about these issues. I couldn’t make today’s meeting because I had to work this morning, a call I couldn’t reschedule (and there’s no cell service in City Hall). Anyway, I have written to ever member of the City Council twice with specific questions and information. I have spoken at the 2 minute public comment session. I have appeared on EVERY local TV station, and I have been included in articles in the Times, P-I, WSB, and other media outlets. The conclusion I’ve reached is that no one cares. While I continue to try to bring issues related to the fallout from this storm, most people have just “moved on.” As my website says, I will stay on the Mayor, Madame Crunican, and the City Council until every grain of air-quality-reducing sand is swept up. I also continue to say UNEQUIVOCALLY that Cruncian and Wiggin LIED blatantly to Seattle and MUST be FIRED.

  • glocson February 20, 2009 (1:58 pm)

    $3.5 million? Where did the money go? We need some new leaders in this city. I maybe could see the total running half a million, but even then it’s still so inflated it’s crazy. They may be basing it on some sort of “equipment usage” figure so they can get more of a budget next year. What do you call snowshoe sharrows?

  • Michael February 20, 2009 (2:14 pm)

    Wonder what it will cost to keep equipment and staff every single year into perpetuity for a one-week-per-decade storm…?
    Yes, Save Our Streets, we HAVE moved on – this happens one week per decade, and most of us have realized that it’s just not a good use of our time and effort. Sorry you were personally affected, but finger-pointing may not be the answer.
    (BTW, if you’re so active on this, please share with us your neighborhood plan for clearing sidewalks and other work in the next storm – surely you got YOUR house in order before going after the City…?)

  • Jennifer Roberts February 20, 2009 (2:40 pm)

    I recall you raising questions about the seattle times story and asking why they weren’t defending their story and their reporter. It looks like they were right. I think you should acknowledge that since you stood on the sidelines, echoing crunican’s allegations but apparently never bothering to check yourself. Did you ever even call the paper or the reporter? I suspect not. If not, your blog merely acted as cheerleader for incompetence. You should stick to writing stories about your advertisers.

  • Save Our Streets Seattle February 20, 2009 (2:40 pm)

    Actually, if you’d visit my web site you could see that in addition to the City’s horrific response to this THREE WEEK snow emergency, I addressed the fact that EVERY single hardware store was sold out of salt, sand, de-icer, and shovels. They could NOT order enough. Deliveries couldn’t reach the stores because of snow-packed roads. Safeway, QFC, and Albertsons were out of salt. ALL salt. By the third week of being snowbound, grocery stores were OUT of eggs, milk, meat, etc. This is more than a one week inconvenience. It shows CLEARLY that Seattle is NOT ready for a major disaster. It shows CLEARLY that the City is out of touch with its citizens. And, it shows that the City would rather lie and hide than face a challenge head-on. That is what I continue to protest. Enjoy your sunny day, Michael.

  • WSB February 20, 2009 (2:49 pm)

    Just got an answer to P’s question at 11:50 am and am adding momentarily to the end of the story above – TR

  • Jeri February 20, 2009 (2:50 pm)

    It was more than 1 week and some of us have jobs that we must make it to. We can’t all “ho hum, snow day, back to sleep.”

  • WSB February 20, 2009 (2:56 pm)

    Hi, Jennifer. No, I did not contact them to ask that question. We don’t follow up on every single question we raise but while you may disagree, I believe there is value in raising questions as well as in pursuing them (and we pursue a lot of questions, those raised by others as well as us). Thanks for taking the time to comment! – TR

  • Jennifer Roberts February 20, 2009 (3:26 pm)

    I tried to find the comments you made, but couldn’t. I do remember them because they cast doubt on a newspaper that in my experience has a very good track record and that i hold in high regard. I remember doubting that story because you said they should be defending their reporter or the story if it was accurate. With the council’s report today, you were obviously wrong to do that. You weren’t just asking questions. You implied something that wasn’t true, and now you’re pretending you were doing reporting yourself. Does that mean it’s okay for me to raise questions about the independence of your journalism or wonder whether you give advertisers preferred treatment? It’s just a question.

  • Quoteman February 20, 2009 (3:33 pm)

    Wow, great “quotes”

  • commuter lady February 20, 2009 (3:52 pm)

    Just wanted to comment on the relevance of community news sites during an event like the December snow.

    I work in WS, but don’t live here. The WS Blog’s constantly updated information made it possible for me to know at a glance if I could safely drive in to work or not. I would have had far greater challenges had I not had this resource.

    Many thanks to the Blog for that coverage, and to all the Blog’s readers who contributed information during the snows.

  • WSB February 20, 2009 (3:55 pm)

    Jennifer, it certainly is, and some have asked before, and we have answered. Not only do we not give preferential treatment, we also go further in terms of disclosure than any news organization with which I have ever been associated or been familiar — identifying a sponsor as such in each place (article or calendar item) that it’s mentioned.
    Re: the specific case you recall – My comments, in a post-story discussion, were specifically that I was surprised the newspaper wasn’t going out of its way to refute what Crunican said in that hearing, because I served many years as a newsroom manager and that’s what I would have done.
    Nonetheless, since you bring it back up again, I’m trying to find contact info currently for Times M/E David Boardman to find out if at this date they have any comment, or perhaps they commented on it at some place on their site afterward and I missed it. – TR

  • p February 20, 2009 (4:11 pm)

    Thanks for the info on losses!

  • WSB February 20, 2009 (5:03 pm)

    Update on above, I have reached David Boardman, who is executive editor of the Seattle Times. He is checking with the reporter who covered the story. I will add here whatever I hear back.

  • Save Our Streets Seattle February 20, 2009 (6:18 pm)

    Now seems like to perfect time to mention that despite all the other stuff that went HAYWIRE in December and regardless of your opinion about their opinions, the West Seattle Blog was a POWERFUL tool for West Seattle during the storm. The coverage was EXTREMELY helpful and exhaustive. They even tried to help people find hardware stores with shovels and salt (though, the stores just couldn’t keep up with demand making the efforts sadly futile). WSB made that horrible 18-day mess of sequential storms survivable and even occasionally livable.

  • Carole February 20, 2009 (7:11 pm)

    Re: the responsibiilty for sidewalk clearing. IIRC, we were at various times advised in news reports NOT to clear, because the melted snow would simply refreeze to ice, and it was suggested walking on packed snow was less dangerous to pedestrians than walking on ice. I did go out and ice the sidewalk in front of our building after the first and second big snowfall, but it did indeed freeze over, so with subsequent snowfalls we left the snow in place to provide traction.

  • JimmyG February 20, 2009 (7:37 pm)

    Wow, people let it go…

    I realize there were people/businesses affected by the snowstorm, but it wasn’t an all-out 100% disaster as some posters are portraying it. I live in the heart of WS, at the top of a hill, and my work is in South King County. In a front wheel car I made it to work EVERY day, having to chain up just 3 of those days.
    I didn’t starve, there was still food and TP on the store shelves, and I kept my sidewalk clear. Some of us made it through without turning it into more than what it was.

    It’s a rare snow event we had and I don’t want the little bit of money we have left in the gov’t being wasted on private contractors on retainer.

  • Mr.JT February 21, 2009 (12:06 pm)

    Hi JimmyG, I for one am not going to let this go. They Mayor stood there and claimed a “B” for how the City reacted to this snowstorm. One would be hard pressed to find another person in this city that thinks that he or his management handled this well.

    The quotes from Grace Crunican after the storms are riddled with untruths from start to finish, she claimed to have first hand knoledge of what what was happening here and that it was all being handled just fine. Truth is she was in Portland “keeping in touch by phone”.

    My personal opinion is that for someone that your and mine taxes are paying just under 200K to run the department of transporation better not be hauling it to Portland during and incident of this magatude. How long would you be employed if in one of the most critical times of your job, you thumbed your nose at your constituants, got in the car to drive off?

    Thats why I’m not backing off. Grace Crunican needs to be fired. She is not an effective leader, and her snyde commenents like “she doesn’t drive a snowplow” shows what little regaurd she has for the people that really do the work. Or the people of this City that she essentially did little to nothing for in a time of need.

  • Save Our Streets Seattle February 23, 2009 (2:52 pm)

    WSB, any word from David Boardman? I heard from Susan Kelleher today who thanked me for sending yet another email (on Friday) to Licata, Crunican, and Wiggins. Not one of them has replied to me yet. I asked Kelleher to get Frank Blethen on the phone with Wiggins directly, but we’ll see. :-)

  • WSB February 23, 2009 (6:31 pm)

    Just got an answer from him moments ago:

    >>I have now had a chance to discuss this with Susan Kelleher. We stand firmly by Susan’s account of what she was told by Mr. Wiggins.

    Further, as Susan pointed out to me today, Ms. Crunican said herself on Friday that the city has “a standard of passable, meaning you can get your car through there, and if you were in a four-wheel drive vehicle, you could.”

    In other words, what we reported.<<

  • Save Our Streets Seattle February 23, 2009 (10:20 pm)

    I accept the Times’ position. They’re only interested in covering their own behind, not actually reporting the story. To me, it’s Crunican’s unapologetic Marie Antoinette attitude that leaves a sour taste in our group’s mouth. Her department was in utter CHAOS for weeks simply trying to their jobs (except Crunican who was in Portland). Even after a 300+ mile round trip drive along a salt-cleared I-5, Crunican still returned to Seattle with a disconnected sense of duty. She apparently tooled around town in “passable” streets as if everything was fine! Ask the mothers of the special education children in my group if Crunican did her job or — like her boss, the Mayor — just waited for it to melt. I still feel that Crunican lied to Licata knowingly, and that her subordinate Alex Wiggins lied to Susan Kelleher knowingly. Since I know that if I did that at my job, I would be fired with extreme malice (i.e. no good recommendations for me), I am going to see who else in my group will support a signature campaign to fire Crunican and Wiggins based on the overwhelming evidence that they are NOT qualified to serve in their current positions. Thanks for the info, WSB.

Sorry, comment time is over.