Hazardous conditions impacted response to January storms

March 5, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

NEW — 6 a.m. March 5, 2012

The battle against the elements created dangerous conditions for city crews during a snowstorm and a rare ice storm in January, officials said in a recent update on response to the storms.

City crews scrambled to keep pace as the storms battered Issaquah and the region. Sometimes, limbs crashed onto city streets mere moments after a snowplow scraped snow and ice from the surface.

“You’d clear a road, you’d come back down and you’d have to clear your way back out the same road,” Bret Heath, city Public Works Operations and emergency management director, said in a Feb. 28 briefing to the City Council. “Or you’d clear a road and you’d get a call from somebody else in the snowplow that said, ‘I thought you cleared this road.’ The answer is, well, we did. We were just there, but those trees were coming down so fast and frequent that it was impossible for awhile to stay on top of that.”

The storms illustrated a need for better planning and coordination, he added. City emergency planners girded for snow and cold conditions, but instead needed to juggle a hazardous situation for snowplow, road and tree-removal crews.

“The reason it was a hardship on our citizens was not because of what we didn’t do, but because of what Mother Nature did to us,” Councilman Fred Butler said.

The snowstorm dropped 3 to 6 inches across the Issaquah area Jan. 18, but more difficult challenges started the next day, as the ice storm led to widespread power outages and caused trees to shed ice- and snow-laden branches.

“We weren’t expecting that. We got behind the curve a little bit initially,” Heath said. “We were able to get back on top of it. I think, all in all, we did a good job of responding to the situation that unfolded for us.”

The quick change in conditions left city crews in a tough position, as problems metastasized from straightforward snow removal to other problems.

“That snowstorm all of the sudden became a debris management issue, road closures, power outage,” Heath said.

Crews focused response efforts on Squak Mountain, the hardest-hit area in the city, even as Mother Nature continued to pummel the region.

“They worked for hours and hours as trees continued to fall on the way up to Forest Rim to keep that road open to the folks that were up there and to all the folks that had to get up there,” Council President Tola Marts said.

(Forest Rim is the highest-elevation neighborhood on Squak Mountain.)

“I come from Minnesota, where the emergency services people are like the most popular people in the state,” Marts added. “You’re always happy to see them.”

The response to the storms exacted a toll. The city sustained about $11,000 in damage to equipment as snowplows and other vehicles operated in 24-hour shifts.

“By the end of the storm, we were glad it was over because we were really patching things together to keep them running,” Heath said.

The cost of storm response and cleanup reached $530,000 for city government, though the total could shrink.

Gov. Chris Gregoire asked President Barack Obama late last month to declare a federal disaster area in King County and 10 other Washington counties for damages and response costs from January storms.

If the declaration is approved, Issaquah and other governments could defray 75 percent of eligible disaster-related costs — such as debris removal — by using Federal Emergency Management Agency public assistance grants. City officials said about $383,000 in costs related to the storms could be eligible for reimbursement through FEMA.

In the days after the storms, officials hosted debris collection events. Issaquah residents hauled tree limbs and other debris — about 306 tons, or enough to fill 62 containers — to Tibbetts Valley Park.

Butler said changes in emergency preparedness — including steps to create the 1700-AM radio station, hire a communications coordinator and foster a Community Emergency Response Team program — led to a smoother response to the storms.

“If this event would have happened four or five years ago, it would have been a different story,” he said.

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