Cleanup continues after snowstorm and ice cause havoc

January 24, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

State Route 900 remains barricaded at midafternoon Jan. 20 to motorists wanting to go southbound past Northwest Talus Drive, a day after a downed tree blocked access to the urban village. By Greg Farrar

In the days after a snowstorm pummeled the region, blackout chased whiteout, as residents uneasy about thorny commutes and missed meetings instead confronted sinking temperatures and toppling trees — all sans electricity.

The major snowstorm dropped 3 to 6 inches across the Issaquah area Jan. 18, but the struggle started the next day, as a rare ice storm led to widespread power outages and caused trees to send ice- and snow-laden branches earthward.

The harsh conditions tested road crews, prompted spinouts and fender benders around the region, and led officials to cancel school for almost a week.

“It was like a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 punch,” Bret Heath, city Public Works Operations and emergency management director, said Jan. 23, as cleanup efforts continued. “For awhile there, I wasn’t sure if we were ever going to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Ironically, snowfall on the ground early Jan. 18 came from a less-severe-than-predicted snowstorm. Still, the snowstorm left deep snow in local neighborhoods, especially areas at higher elevations. The tough challenges came in the days afterward, as ice encased power lines and tree branches.

Brent Bower, a National Weather Service senior hydrologist in Seattle, said the snowstorm still ranked as substantial, even if predictions of a “mega-storm” in the days preceding the event did not come to fruition.

“The storm kept changing course and ended up going a little bit further south,” he said. “It didn’t take much, but it was enough to make it a lot lighter snow rate up here, and it looks like it’s going to shorten the duration, too.”

The snowstorm caused minor headaches compared to the subsequent ice storm, as more than 18,000 customers in the Issaquah area and more than 200,000 customers in Western Washington lost power.

The electricity sputtered moments after Mayor Ava Frisinger poured batter into a waffle iron for 7-year-old granddaughter Ava.

“So, one batch of waffles got baked and then the rest turned into cooked-on-the-stovetop pancakes,” the elder Ava Frisinger said the next day.

Catastrophe averted, but troubles linger

The mayor — bundled in a fleece bomber jacket and heavy duty boots — trekked to City Hall from home in downtown Issaquah. City Hall had power, but no heat, and the temperature in the mayor’s office hovered in the mid-50s.

Trees toppled on Squak Mountain, prompting street closures and power outages as city and Puget Sound Energy crews battled the elements. Communities on Tiger Mountain, just outside city limits, remained in darkness for days after the storm, as crews toiled to restore power.

“Some areas are harder hit than others,” Heath said. “It’s interesting when you’re driving around. Some areas look fairly normal, like it was breezy. Other areas look like a bomb went off.”

Still, despite the damage — and a winter storm emergency proclamation from Gov. Chris Gregoire — catastrophe did not come. Forecasters predicted strong winds and heavy rains for the days after the snowstorm, though neither materialized.

“If that had hit when the trees were loaded with snow and ice, that would have been something to see,” Heath said. “Fortunately, that didn’t really develop and I think we skated on that one.”

Concerns about Issaquah Creek and street flooding bubbled to the surface late Jan. 20, as forecasters issued a flood watch for Western Washington. City crews, officials and residents also cast a wary eye at ice- and snow-laden trees.

(Issaquah dodged significant flooding last year, and the last flooding to occur in the city resulted after a Pineapple Express storm barreled into the region in early December 2010.)

City officials opened the Emergency Operations Center on Jan. 19 to coordinate the response to the emergency.


Snowstorm causes road closures

The slushy snow and downed trees posed obstacles to road crews for days.

State Route 900 at the southern city limits closed due to a downed tree. Southeast 56th Street from 229th Avenue Southeast to East Lake Sammamish Parkway Southeast closed due to downed power lines. So is 221st Place Southeast from Southeast 62nd Street to Northwest Sammamish Road. Several Squak Mountain streets closed as tree branches rained onto the roadway.

Outside Issaquah, state Route 18 from Interstate 90 near Preston to Auburn closed for days to due hundreds of downed trees on the roadway. State Route 900 closed at Southeast May Valley Road due to downed trees.

“Hundreds of trees fell,” said Dave McCormick, state Department of Transportation regional maintenance manager. “It’s the worst we’ve seen in the last several years.”

Officials urged people to exercise caution outdoors in order to prevent another tragedy similar to a Jan. 19 incident, after a falling tree killed a 61-year-old man near Issaquah.

“Be very careful when you’re outside of possible falling trees or limbs,” said Communications Coordinator Autumn Monahan, the city official responsible for disseminating information to the public during snowstorms and other emergencies. “When we have rain that’s right on top of heavy snow, we’ve got weight issues, so make sure to be aware of you’re surroundings when you’re outside.”

The focus remained on the power outage, as residents questioned PSE and city officials about repairs. Issaquah Police Department dispatchers received a handful of calls from residents asking about repairs to the power grid — a no-no. PSE urged customers to direct questions about repairs to the utility.

“Every call that we receive that’s not an emergency call, that takes away our dispatchers from taking a call that could be an emergency,” Monahan said. “We do ask people to only call if they have an actual emergency.”

Frisinger said residents adapted gracefully to the challenges posed by ongoing power outages and harsh conditions.

“I’m glad that people are as self-reliant as they are and they’re very helpful to other people and concerned about them,” she said.

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

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