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February Was Seattle’s Snowiest Month in 50 Years. Here’s How the City Responded.

This month, the City of Seattle faced some of the most extreme winter weather our region has ever seen. Seattle receives an average of 5.9 inches of snow each winter – this year, we got 20.2 inches in the first 11 days of February. Our City hasn’t seen this much snow in a single month for 50 years. Besides just snow, these storms brought rain, ice, wind and freezing temperatures, creating an unprecedented series of challenges for the City to respond to.

Mayor Durkan believes City government must be equipped to deliver on basic city services, and in a crisis, these basic services become absolutely essential. From plowing our key roads to allow access to first responders and transit to quickly restoring power for our homes and hospitals to moving people from outside into safer spaces, residents and businesses rely on the City to deliver on its core functions.

Throughout this time, the City has focused on minimizing the disruption of essential services and has prioritized the health and safety of our residents. With many people asking about how specific departments have responded to this historic winter weather event, we have outlined the hard work that each department did to keep our City running.

A Historic Month of Winter Weather 

Seattle receives an average of 5.9 inches of snow each winter. Over the last 12 days, the City has been responding to a series of four back to back winter weather events. In the first 11 days of February, Seattle saw 20.2 inches of snow, which is the most snow in a single month in the last 50 years.  The City of Seattle was in daily contact with the National Weather Service (NWS),  and the NWS noted that each of these weather systems were incredibly hard to predict. This caused the City to prepare for a series of variable circumstances for each storm (snow, sleet, ice, wind, and rain).  

Citywide Coordinating Planning & Response 

Since the first storm on February 3, the City of Seattle has remained open, although some services were impacted. The impacts to City services were released to the public and media each morning. Many of the City’s essential services (SDOT, SCL, SPR, SPU Call Center) were extended to 24/7 operations.   

As the first storm approached Seattle, the timing aligned with the ending of the viaduct closure and the opening of the new SR-99 tunnel. At that time, the City had underway a 24/7 operation across many departments and regional transportation agencies to respond to the longest highway closure in Seattle’s history.  

On February 8, Mayor Durkan signed a Civil Emergency proclamation and activated the Emergency Operations Center for the next three winter weather events, which allowed King County Metro, Sound Transit, and City departments the ability to quickly deploy resources in real time. For example, SDOT needed capacity to move salt to distribution centers at Charles Street; in response, SPR and SCL provided additional dump trucks. Analyzing shelter capacity, we were able to work with HSD, SPU, and SPR to open an additional emergency shelter in a community center. With Seattle Public Schools asking for assistance around a three-block radius of elementary schools, the City then launched Operation Shared Shovel to prioritize sidewalks in key areas identified by SPS schools – this quickly launched effort was coordinated through a number of City departments including FAS, DON, SPR, and SDOT.  

All Deputy Mayors joined in these daily coordination meetings and calls, which were conducted by Barb Graff, the Director of the Office of Emergency Management.  

The Mayor and her cabinet officials conducted nearly daily media briefings to ensure the public and media were updated. The Mayor’s Office, in partnership with HSD and others, also coordinated outreach to local businesses including Amazon, Nordstrom, REI, Costco, Tom Douglas Restaurants, and other businesses who donated meals and supplies.  

Seattle Department of Transportation  

SDOT has developed a citywide snow and ice response plan that is specifically tailored to respond to Seattle’s weather patterns, and is closely aligned with current capacity and resources. SDOT’s number one priority during any winter weather event is keeping major streets and roadway structures open and passable to the greatest extent possible. During weather emergencies, it is imperative that the City give the greatest number of people passable access to buses, highways, medical facilities, and clear paths for emergency responders. In order to accomplish this, SDOT’s winter weather plan is focused on attaining bare and wet pavement on specific streets (the Gold and Emerald route network) within 12 hours after a significant lull in a snow and ice event. The basic framework of our winter weather response plan is consistent with Federal Highway Administration guidelines and best practices.  

SDOT focused resources in a way that enabled the City to keep approximately 1,200 lane-miles (70 million square feet) of the City’s most critical streets accessible. These streets are included in the response plan because they are essential routes used by the greatest number of people as well as emergency services, freight, and buses. During breaks in the storm, when critical routes were clear and safe to travel on, SDOT worked to clear neighborhood streets and sidewalks, based on priorities from King County Metro and Seattle Public Schools. With Seattle’s topography challenges, SDOT and SPD crews put out Road Closed signs on the many roads that are too steep to plow safely.  

SDOT used at least 35 snow plows at any given time, which were put into near continuous 24-hour use for the duration of the storm. The department used other types of equipment like small trucks and liquid de-icing trucks to pre-treat streets, clear narrow areas like bike lanes, and transport sidewalk shoveling crews. SDOT had existing contracts in place to augment staff capacity for major storm response and to bring in about 10 additional plows. In total, since February 3, about 100 pieces of equipment were driven for over 70,000 miles. 

Each day, SDOT deployed between 30-100 workers to hand-shovel the City’s most heavily used pedestrian routes and transit areas that are not adjacent to homes or businesses, and SDOT also was able to deploy other crews from other departments including Seattle Parks. SDOT’s winter response plan calls for shoveling all of Seattle’s public outdoor stairways, dozens of pedestrian overpasses, and approximately 1,200 curb ramps. SDOT also worked with Seattle Public Schools to identify sidewalks most in need of attention and responded to public reports of hazardous sidewalks conditions. 

SDOT began deploying crews in back-to-back 12 hour shifts beginning at 12 p.m. on Sunday, February 3. As the snow continued to fall, it was necessary to continuously treat and re-treat the same roads, sidewalks, and bike lanes in order to ensure they were safe to travel on. SDOT utilized about 350 City workers from SDOT, Seattle Public Utilities, Parks and Recreation, and Seattle City Light in an unprecedented collaboration across agencies. The majority of City employees completed nine back-to-back 12 hour shifts during the duration of these four storms, with only a short window on February 6-7 when some crew members were able to rest.  

Only now is SDOT beginning to scale back its storm response efforts to allow some crew members to rest. Even so, crews are still continuing to clear major streets and keep transit moving.  

Human Services Department  

Under Mayor Durkan, the City of Seattle has expanded shelter capacity by 25 percent, which equals 2,079 shelter beds and 328 units in villages. As the winter weather approached, the City has been serving more individuals and families than ever before.  

While most of our shelters are near capacity, (especially our enhanced shelters) some basic shelters continue to have capacity on any given day. As part of the City’s winter weather response, the City created 550 new emergency shelter spaces across Seattle, in addition to 300 spaces in coordination with the County. The City’s efforts to get people inside leading up to, during, and after the storms was unprecedented, rapidly getting more people sheltered at one time than at any other single time in the City’s history.

The City has typically opened one shelter at Seattle Center Armory for cold weather events. We preemptively opened shelter for everyone—including families—and are bringing resources to these shelters, including a resource fair at Seattle Center starting February 15 to get people the connections and help they need. The City provided enough beds and resources for families and all shelters had capacity under occupancy codes. Families do not appear in as high of numbers as single adults in our service population and that remained the trend during the snowstorms. Service providers, such as Mary’s Place and the YWCA, have ongoing resources to meet family needs and we preemptively added family-focused emergency shelter during the storms, including expanding the capacity at Mary’s Place.  

Ultimately, the trend remained relatively the same, with the vast majority of individuals staying at Seattle Center, Garfield, and Bitter Lake Community centers being for single adults or adult couples. When the team encountered families with children living unsheltered or staying at the severe weather shelters, they were provided transport to Mary’s Place which expanded capacity to ensure that all families with children could stay inside. Lastly, HSD and service providers have already begun reuniting individuals that utilized emergency shelter with family members—which is an encouraging development. 

Last year, Mayor Durkan expanded the Navigation Team, and the Navigation Team workers were out in the field around the clock to save lives. The Navigation Team began ongoing nightly wellness checks  on Monday, February 4. This effort continued nearly around the clock during the height of the storms, with Navigation Team workers in some cases working 18-hour shifts and sleeping overnight in offices to work additional 18-hour shifts the following day. This outreach work culminated over the weekend and early this week in direct correlation to the severity of the storms, which posed life threatening conditions for people living unsheltered. We found that during the worst of the storms, we had the most success getting people inside. The preliminary numbers show the team making at least 715 contacts and transporting 162 individuals to shelter during the storms.  

The Navigation Team also distributed essential food and shelter that were donated by Costco, Nordstrom, and Amazon. This outreach effort was the largest push done by the Navigation Team and service providers in recent memory 

The City of Seattle did a significant public information campaign to contact 2-1-1 (or 9-1-1 in a crisis) if residents or businesses saw anyone in crisis or in need of shelter. All first responders and dispatchers were notified of emergency shelters and the City arranged for transportation to shelters with any dispatch or crisis calls.  

Seattle City Light  

Seattle City Light saw a few widespread outages over the weekend, with about 7,000 customers impacted at one point on Saturday, though most of those were restored within a few hours. Crews responded to each outage as quickly and safely as possible. The greatest impact came with the fourth winter weather event on Monday that brought heavy snow and rain, which washed snowfall off burdened tree limbs, causing service interruptions as the vegetation sprung back up into power lines. On Monday night, Seattle City Light experienced a peak of 39,000 customers impacted; the total customers impacted over Monday night was approximately 43,000. Crews worked through the night to respond to every outage despite significant snow fall and rain. By noon Tuesday, the outages were reduced to approximately 5,000 customers, and by noon Wednesday, fewer than 50 customers were experiencing an outage – this included a combination of storm related and non-storm related outages.  

All storm affected customers were back in-service Wednesday. The City prepared contingency plans in case these outages were more widespread. 

Seattle Parks and Recreation 

SPR worked with HSD to prepare, open, and staff severe weather shelters at Garfield Community Center and Bitter Lake Community Center. The Garfield Community Center shelter opened on February 8 and the Bitter Lake Community Center shelter opened on February 11, both shelters will be open 24 hours a day through the morning of Monday, February 18.  

To date, the Garfield shelter has served over 100 people each night and the Bitter Lake shelter has served approximately 50 people each night.  SPR staff assisted with checking in guests; preparing and serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner for shelter guests; coordinating volunteers and service agencies; gathering and sorting donations; providing security; cleaning; and other tasks to help keep guests safe and comfortable.  

SPR opened and staffed many community center and pool facilities for drop-in use from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. throughout the snow storm. We extended drop-in hours at most facilities on February 13 until 5 to 7 p.m. All community centers and pools resumed normal operation on February 14.  

In support of SDOT, SPR worked 12 hour shifts around the clock hauling salt. Approximately 8.5 million pounds of salt was hauled by SPR Crews alone.  SPR plowed Beacon Ave from Spokane along Beacon to Myrtle and adjacent streets, Cheasty Blvd, Rainier Ave from Graham to Henderson and other routes as assigned by SDOT.  SPR also plowed parking lots at libraries, community centers, pools, schools, specialty gardens, Amy Yee Tennis Centers. SPR has plowed 50-60 lots to date. 30 staff supported pedestrian walkway and overpass clearing citywide. Attended to 40 (and counting) tree emergencies citywide. 

Finance and Administrative Services 

Finance and Administrative Services’ (FAS) Fleet Management crews serviced 107 snow vehicles and responded to 347 unique work orders for repair incidents. They dispensed almost 8,000 gallons of fuel for snow response vehicles.  

FAS’ support helped maintain at least 90 percent of SDOT’s snow response fleet for use at all times during the response. Fleets staff used parts from downed snow response vehicles to keep others on the road, and leveraged their metal shop to fabricate high-wear parts that were unavailable on the market. 

Facility Operations staff coordinated plowing, de-icing, and snow removal at 13 different City facilities, spreading almost 15,000 pounds of de-icer. 

During the inclement weather, FAS kept most of its Customer Service Centers open and the Customer Service Bureau continued to answer calls and provide information. FAS also coordinated donations and did pickups and deliveries, including donations used by the Navigation Team and at the emergency shelters. 

Seattle Public Utilities 

Garbage, recycling and yard or food waste collection is dependent on safe road and weather conditions, not just for drivers but also the public who share the roadways during inclement weather. With over 150,000 residential households and 6,000 multi-family accounts, responding to a missed collection window without causing additional delays can be a logistical challenge.  

The series of winter storms in the Seattle region caused an 11-day stretch of weather complications for our crews. At every safe weather opportunity, drivers collected waste from as many customers as possible, including critical locations like hospitals, multi-family buildings, and high volume commercial customers.  

Following the historic series of winter storms that hit the Seattle region over the past 11 days, Mayor Durkan and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) announced they will provide a $10 billing credit to residential customers who had two or more missed garbage collections due to inclement weather.  

Seattle Public Utilities also is providing garbage drop-off sites on Saturday from 10 am-3 pm in four locations.  

Throughout this weekend, residents whose solid waste has been delayed can also drop off a load of garbage, recycling or compost at any Seattle Transfer Station. There is a limit of one truck or carload per household up to 420 pounds of combined garbage, recycling, and compost.