Snow blankets region, but officials report few headaches — so far

January 17, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Snow blanketed Issaquah and the Puget Sound region Jan. 15 and 16, as officials and residents prepared for more challenging conditions in the days ahead.

The potential for more snow — plus flooding as the snow melted — reminded emergency planners to gird for harsh La Niña conditions, albeit later in the season than expected.

“It’s going to be pretty messy in the next couple of days,” said Johnny Burg, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Seattle. “People should just pay attention to the forecast.”

The forecast could change, of course, but meteorologists predicted additional snow in the days ahead. Then, urban flooding along streets could occur as the snow starts to melt, perhaps later in the week.

On the Web

In addition to a winter weather-centric website, www.ci.issaquah.wa.us/winterweather, the city also maintains a radio station, 1700AM, and emergency phone line, 837-3028, to provide frequent winter storm updates.

Find information about road closures and King County snow-response plans at the county Road Services Division website, www.kingcounty.gov/transportation/kcdot/roads.aspx.

Know before you go

City and King County emergency planners offer tips for drivers in snowy conditions:

Never drive around road-closure signs. Call 206-296-8100 to report problems on roads in unincorporated King County.

Allow ample time to reach your destination.

Equip your vehicle with all-season tires and carry tire chains.

If you must abandon your vehicle, park clear of travel lanes to allow snow equipment to pass. (The city tows vehicles left abandoned in travel lanes. Call the Issaquah Police Department nonemergency line, 837-3200, to locate vehicles after a snowstorm.)

Dress for the weather in case you become stranded and have to walk.

Use caution and maintain several car lengths’ distance behind a snowplow or sander.

Warn children about the dangers of sledding on hilly streets.

King County Metro Transit

King County Metro Transit is prepared for winter. The agency is asking bus riders to make preparations for winter bus travel, too.

Metro Transit riders can receive up-to-date information about route changes at the Transit Alerts website, http://metro.kingcounty.gov/up/rr/ alertscenter.html.

The alerts can be received as email or text messages.

Metro Transit assigns every bus route to a geographic area in King County. Check the status at the winter weather website, http://metro.kingcounty.gov/up/rr/ adverseweather.html.

The agency displays the service status of each area on a color-coded snow map:

Green indicates buses operating on normal routes.

Yellow indicates some, but not all, routes in the area operating on snow routes.

Red indicates all bus routes in a designated area operating on snow routes.

What to know

Allied Waste and Waste Management, the garbage haulers in the Issaquah area, sometimes operate on reduced service schedules during inclement weather.

Allied Waste Customers should go to www.alliedwastenorthwest.com for updates during inclement weather. Waste Management customers should go to www.wmnorthwest.com for service updates.

“Usually, we try to get things nailed down within the next 48 hours,” Burg said. “Anything beyond that, really, the accuracy kind of falls off. It all depends on if the models are all in agreement and if the models are doing well.”

The city Public Works Operations Department and King County Road Services Division start to dispatch crews to plow and sand slushy roadways as snow materializes. Crews may also apply de-icing material to major arterial streets and bridges. Sometimes, city crews stage equipment along major roadways if snow is certain to fall.

The city focuses on high-priority, hillside routes — such as Highlands Drive Northeast, Mountain Park Boulevard Southwest, Northwest Talus Drive and Southeast Issaquah-Fall City Road — to maintain access to Issaquah hillside communities and the Sammamish Plateau amid inclement conditions.

Officials also reminded motorists to pay special attention to bridges and overpasses, because both can be more prone to freeze during late night and early morning hours. So, drivers should be on the lookout for black ice, as well as snow.

Unlike snowstorms in 2010 and 2011 — including a pre-Thanksgiving 2010 nightmare responsible for transportation gridlock throughout the region — officials said this snowstorm did not cause as many headaches, at least in the initial days. Issaquah police did not encounter vehicles abandoned en masse at the base of steep hills after the Jan. 15 snowstorm — a change from past incidents.

“It’s been really quiet on the roads,” said Communications Coordinator Autumn Monahan, the city official responsible for disseminating information to the public during snowstorms and other emergencies. “I think people have either been staying at home or being prepared and checking their routes before they leave.”

Planners credited residents for preparing for inclement conditions and opting to ride out the snowstorm at home rather than attempt a commute to the office. Some commuters encountered a smoother ride because the Issaquah School District and many government offices closed Jan. 16 for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.

“Traffic has been very light because it’s a holiday weekend — and that really helps,” Monahan said.

La Niña poses challenge

Sara Niegowski, Issaquah School District spokeswoman, said officials prepared early for possible cancellations or delays related to inclement conditions. The district did not need to cancel or delay classes due to weather during the 2011-12 school year through Jan. 16.

“We’re very, very happy with that,” Niegowski said. “We know it’s bound to catch up with us at some point. In the past couple years, it’s been hitting us in November. For January, this is not too bad.”

Issaquah, King County and state Department of Transportation crews toiled around the clock to clear streets, and to dump sand and apply de-icing fluid to roadways. (The holiday weekend did not affect staffing levels for snow-response crews.)

“We encourage people to take major arterials, or to get onto a major arterial as soon as they can, because they’re the ones that will be cleared first,” Monahan said.

King County crews started responding to snow and ice on roadways in north areas of the county the afternoon of Jan. 14, and by early the next day, officials placed all crews on 12-hour shifts to conduct around-the-clock snow and ice operations countywide. Officials placed about 150 county maintenance staffers on snow duty.

The county focuses on major roadways during regional snowstorms. The setup could mean less attention on neighborhood streets and closures for steep roads.

In inclement conditions, the Issaquah School District’s transportation team fans out on roads across the district before 4 a.m. to assess conditions. The team focuses on the most treacherous areas in the sprawling district. (The district stretches from Preston to Newcastle, and from Sammamish to Renton.)

The team then relays the information to district officials. Superintendent Steve Rasmussen then makes the decision to cancel or delay school.

“If it’s something really obvious, we’ll try to make the decision the night before,” Niegowski said. “But if it’s something where the weather might change, it might drop off and there’s still a question, I think people have got to get up in the morning and just start driving the roads.”

If the district cancels school, officials built in days throughout the school year to accommodate possible snow days.

“We like it when they don’t occur, but we’re ready when they do,” Niegowski said.

Meteorologists said harsh conditions could continue due to La Niña. The phenomenon means unusually cold temperatures in the Pacific Ocean near South America — and colder-than-normal temperatures and greater-than-normal rain and snowfall in Western Washington.

The double whammy from significant snowfall, rain and subsequent snowmelt could cause flooding along Issaquah streets. Monahan said city crews prepared for flood response in addition to snow removal.

La Niña is considered the opposite of El Niño — a phenomenon defined by unusually warm temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. In the Pacific Northwest, El Niño tends to mean drier winters. (Meteorologists use data collected at Sea-Tac International Airport for official, long-term climate records in the region.)

“We have plenty of the winter left — we have the rest of January, February and until March,” Burg said. “We’ll probably get more snow, and we’ll have to see how the rest of January shakes out as far as temperatures go.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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