Thursday, January 19, 2012
During the Great Seattle Snowpocalypse of 2012, #snOMG2012 for short, much sport has been made of the following three supposed facts:
1. Seattle drivers can't drive in the snow. (Except that one person from somewhere where it "really" snows.)
2. It doesn't "really" snow in Seattle.
3. We all overreact like a bunch of babies when the first flakes start to fall.
I'd like to take a moment or two to explore these so-called facts and add a few of my own to the conversation.
First, I will not dispute that Seattle drivers cannot drive in snow. They also can't drive in rain or bright sunshine, but that's another thing to bitch about on another day. To their credit, I will allow as how most Seattleites know they can't drive in snow and they stay out of their hybrid four-wheel drive sport utility vehicles when the strange, solid rain falls from the sky. The fact is, it doesn't snow here often enough for Seattle drivers to get used to driving in snow, so they never get good at it. They never learn some of the fundamental techniques someone from the Midwest or Northeast would have mastered before graduating from high school such as "gun the motherfucker up the hill, stopping for nothing, and pray a stalled school bus isn't lying in wait for you to slam into just over the crest." (True story, happened to a college friend of mine. No one was hurt, but it's not atypical of southwestern Pennsylvania winter driving conditions.)
Which leads me to the second of these "facts" in evidence: It doesn't "really" snow in Seattle. Well, yes and no. It doesn't snow often in Seattle and the snow that falls here is seldom deep enough to qualify as a school-canceling occasion in other parts of the country where it "really" snows, but the type of snow we get in Seattle is wet and weird and exactly the sort of slushy mess that would leave most people, even hard-ass four-wheelers from Wheeling, steering into the skid. We are close to sea level here, which keeps the snow away most of the time, but when it does get cold enough at sea level for snow to fall, the humidity is high and the conditions are treacherous. Made doubly dangerous by the manner in which Seattle (and surrounding areas) deal with the snow on the roads, which is to say, laughably.
During my first Seattle snowstorm, dubbed Winter Blast 1996 by the local media (which included a much younger, but still weather-beaten "Danger" Jim Forman), I learned that when lots of snow falls here in a short period of time, the city just shuts down. At that time, the city had just eleven snow ploughs total and WSDOT didn't seem to have many more. Additionally, I learned that they do not (or did not at the time) apply any sort of deicer to the roads before or after scraping them. Some things have improved over the years, there are more ploughs and they now use a chemical deicer that's supposed to work as well as salt without doing much damage to the environment, but problems persist. For example, snow ploughs only work when they are lowered far enough to scrape the snow and ice off the road surface. They don't lower the blades far enough here, so all they manage to accomplish is creating a nice, slick ribbon of ice where the traction-giving snow used to be. Observe any Seattle-area street or highway immediately after the snow plough has been through, and you'll discover a road surface that could easily be mistaken for a skating rink. It's also important to note at this point that only main streets and highways will get even this much attention. Secondary roads and side streets are left untouched by even these puny municipal snow removal techniques, so you're likely to find them impassable because they are littered with abandoned vehicles that were close enough to the curb to count as parking.
It is easy to criticize Seattle, its drivers and citizens, for over-reacting to winter weather. We do go a little crazy at the sight of a few flakes and we obsess over Cliff Mass’s weather blog and the highly dramatized weather coverage presented pretty much 24/7 on every local news channel. We post photos and comments on Facebook and Twitter. We watch YouTube videos of unfortunate cars and busses sliding and slamming around our city streets. We overshare our anxiety and wonder over the frozen crystals from the sky.
But we do so relatively secure in the knowledge that in a day or two, after all the panic and pandemonium, the temperatures will rise and the rain will come to melt the snow and flood our storm drains and basements.
This morning, large ice pellets are falling from the sky, clicking and clattering off the frozen crust of ice that lays on the six or so inches of snow in my back yard. Friends in Ballard or Greenwood may have seen less than an inch of accumulation. That’s snow in Seattle. And we really do love it.