On December 17, 2008, record cold temperatures and snowfalls east of the Cascade Mountains kick off what will become nearly two weeks of wild weather that eventually impacts most of the state. Spokane sees record snowfalls, and many areas endure record low temperatures. Seattle gets a rare White Christmas, but the storms bring the city to its knees and perhaps cost Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955) his job in the next election.
The East Gets Hammered, the West Gets a Taste
Beginning on Wednesday, December 17, 2008, a record snowfall hit Spokane and other areas in Eastern Washington, kicking off what would become nearly two weeks of unusually severe weather and extreme cold temperatures across the state. During a 24-hour period ending at 10:00 a.m. on December 18, the Spokane International Airport saw 19.4 inches of snowfall, shattering the previous 24-hour record of 13 inches set in 1881. And it didn't stop there. By midnight on the 18th, Spokane had seen its "snowiest day in 127 years" ("Spokane Snowfall Record Shattered").
Schools, businesses, and government offices were closed, and on December 17 alone the Washington State Patrol was called to approximately 200 traffic accidents in Eastern Washington. Spokane city bus service and garbage collection were halted and most flights out of the airport were canceled or delayed. Spokane wasn't alone; nearby areas reported as much a two feet of snow during the same period, with Colfax getting 16 inches, Pullman 12, and Oakesdale more than 24 inches.
West of the Cascades, snow began falling just north of Everett early on December 17, with accumulations of four to 12 inches. A few hours later, just in time for the Wednesday evening commute, heavy snow started falling from south Everett to Shoreline, snarling traffic on I-5 and I-405. A small area northeast of Arlington got hit with an astounding 23 inches, although the town itself got only 4 inches; Darrington got 14 inches and Mount Vernon, 8; Anacortes got 6.5 inches and Bellingham, 5; Port Townsend got 4 inches.
Despite the warnings of weather mavens, the immediate area around Seattle and central King County was spared on the 17th, protected by the Olympic Mountains from the storm systems barreling in from the west. This was not to last.
Record Cold and Snow Across the State
The snow arrived in the Seattle metropolitan area on Thursday, December 18, and some areas of central Puget Sound recorded three to six inches. Seattle saw a rare instance of "thundersnow" in the morning, with the falling snow illuminated by lightning flashes, accompanied by ominous claps of thunder. The overall conditions were so unusual that local meteorologists were left guessing. Cliff Mass of the University of Washington noted on his weather blog
"The models indicate a threat of serious snow over the region ... but this is a difficult forecast. Will the cold air hold as strong, moist SW flow invades aloft? This is what we will have to determine in the next few days" (Cliff Mass blog, December 18, 2008).
Within hours, he had his answer, and it was "yes":
"This is clearly turning into a significant event in portions of central Puget Sound with some areas getting 3-6 inches. We have had the northerlies moving southward from NW Washington at low levels, and moist unstable flow from the southwest surmounting it. Thus, the thundersnow and snow showers" (Cliff Mass blog, December 18, 2008).
In Eastern Washington the severe weather that had hit on December 17 continued. Snow kept falling in Spokane, and the city declared a "Condition Red," putting snow removal crews on a 24-hours-a-day schedule and hiring private contractors to assist them. In the southeast section of the state, Dayton recorded 11 inches of snow in the 24-hour period ending on the morning of December 19, more than tripling the old record of 3.5 inches set in 1978.
By December 20, record cold temperatures turned highways and city streets into skating rinks all over the state. In Western Washington, Seattle saw a low of 14 degrees, tying a record, and it was worse both north and south of the city, with Tacoma and Everett hitting 10, Woodinville 9, Friday Harbor and Oak Harbor 8, Marysville 3, Lake Stevens -2, and Arlington a frigid -6.
Across the Cascades it was even worse. Ritzville in Adams County saw temperatures plunge to -6, the lowest since they started keeping records there in 1899. Up north, the Methow Valley in Okanogan County hit a low of -21 degrees, also a record, and to the east, at Colville in Stevens County, the temperature plunged to -22, eight degrees colder than its previous low. Spokane, still digging out from the earlier record snowfall, endured a temperature of -18 on December 20, followed by more snow.
In the Seattle area, things were going from bad to more bad. A storm on the evening of Saturday, December 20, dropped up to five inches of snow and continued into Sunday. The storms nearly shut down transportation in the region, closing Interstate 90 at Snoqualmie Pass on Sunday morning and causing major problems at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where thousands of people were stranded. Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains stopped running, and Seattle's Metro Transit had fewer than half the usual number of routes open.
Snow tapered off on December 22, but picked right up again on the 23rd and early on the 24th, guaranteeing the first White Christmas since 1990, and the one with the most snow since 1871. But it came at a steep price. City government, which took pride in its environmental sensitivity, refused to salt city streets, and by December 23 most roads in the city, including some of the main arteries, were either entirely impassable or covered with deep furrows of frozen snow and ice that made driving hard on motorists and vehicles alike.
The End -- A Real Mess
On Christmas Day, with most of the state either buried in snow, frozen in ice, or both, Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947) declared a state of emergency, noting that "Snowfall has reached record or near-record level in 30 of the state’s 39 counties" ("Governor Gregoire Proclaims Statewide Emergency for Winter Storms"). The proclamation directed all state agencies to support emergency-response activities and authorized the activation of the Washington National Guard and the Washington State Guard. Local states of emergency had already been declared in King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Thurston counties; the cities of Gig Harbor, Spokane, and Spokane Valley; and by the Makah Tribe.
The timing of the storm could not have been worse for retailers. In hard-hit areas, including Seattle and Spokane, the snow and freezing weather kept shoppers away, and shopping malls and downtown stores were forced to close early to allow employees to make it safely home. Lynn Beck, the manager of Seattle's Pacific Place Mall, said "The timing of this storm was not ideal" (Puget Sound Business Journal). That was a considerable understatement. The awful weather, combined with the growing economic recession, nearly put many stores out of business.
Over the next several days temperatures would remain frigid on both sides of the Cascades, and most of the snow that fell stayed in place. As of midnight on December 25, a total of 45.2 inches had fallen at Spokane International Airport, an all-time record. Snowplow drivers worked 12-hour shifts Christmas Day to clear the city's main arteries, and there were several reports of them being threatened by homeowners whose driveways were blocked by piles of plowed snow. But the worst was over, although the city would be battling snow and cold temperatures until well into the first week of January 2009.
West of the mountains, warming temperatures brought wet snow and rain, and roofs began collapsing all over the Puget Sound region, including in Bellevue, Marysville, Olympia, and Arlington. By December 27, temperatures were in the 40s, and the accumulated snow and ice was quickly disappearing. But in Seattle, at least, the aftermath of the severe winter weather of 2008 would play out for months.
Seattle's refusal to use salt or other chemicals on its streets and the seemingly selective nature of its snow-clearance efforts were to have political repercussions. At the time, Alex Wiggins, chief of staff for Seattle Department of Transportation head Grace Crunican, tried to explain why very few of the city's thoroughfares were effectively cleared:
"We're trying to create a hard-packed surface. It doesn't look like anything you'd find in Chicago or New York ... . If we were using salt, you'd see patches of bare road because salt is very effective. We decided not to utilize salt because it's not a healthy addition to Puget Sound" (The Seattle Times, "Seattle Refuses to Use Salt … ").
That may have been one environmental gesture too many for even Seattle's generally liberal electorate, many of whom right then would have been delighted to have their streets looks like those in Chicago or New York. In the days leading up to Christmas, most main arteries in the city had resembled moonscapes, with small sections of clear pavement girded on all sides by piles of dirty, frozen slush. Driving on them was a bone-shaking, suspension-breaking ordeal. Nonetheless, on Christmas Eve Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955) awarded the City a grade of "B" for its snow-clearing efforts. At that point, almost all neighborhood streets on Seattle's various hills were usable, if at all, only by four-wheel drive vehicles equipped with chains or studded tires.
Among the exceptions was one glaring and politically problematic area of relatively well-plowed streets -- a stretch of Admiral Way in West Seattle near where both Nickels and his deputy mayor, Tim Ceis, lived. This, and the fact that Seattle was a transportation hell for well over a week, naturally led to quick hearings by the city council. Before the first week of January they had begun, and soon grew contentious. Transportation director Crunican was one of the first witnesses, and although she defended her department's efforts, she ultimately conceded that its performance clearing Seattle's streets was merely "adequate." Later, after a study of the city's efforts had been completed, she revised that opinion, saying on February 19, 2009, "We blew it" (The Seattle Times, February 20, 2009).
For Nickels's political opponents, the great Christmas storm of 2008 was the gift that kept on giving. The controversy lingered for months and months. In June 2009 the City was forced to release records that depicted the Department of Transportation as a rather dysfunctional place. There were complaints of a hostile work environment, and some employees were disciplined for allegedly slacking off or not coming to work during the snow response. Consultants were hired, at a cost of more than $500,000, and several City workers received compensation for their employment complaints.
Nickels, stung by speculation that he and Ceis had received preferential snowplow treatment, also asked the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission to investigate that matter. The commission reported in August 2009 that it had
"found no evidence that Mayor Nickels, members of the Mayor's senior staff, or cabinet or any other elected officials, misused their official positions to secure special treatment from SDOT during the storm response" ("No Ethics Violation in Seattle Snow Response").
The ethics panel was less convinced that personnel within the department, albeit without specific requests, had not in fact made sure that the streets near the mayor's residence were passable. Although no further action was taken, the harm had been done.
Before the snow debacle, Nickels had been widely considered a shoo-in for reelection to a third term in office. Although he had a reputation of being somewhat of a political "Boss" in the Chicago tradition, something Seattle was not used too, he had been an effective mayor, and seemed to have a talent for circumventing City government's reputation for killing progress with process by subjecting every decision of any importance to seemingly endless rounds of hearings and comment. In fact, Seattle may have just tired of the Nickels brand, but for whatever reason, his popularity ratings never recovered from the hit the weather dealt him.
In the mayoral primary in August 2009 Nickels placed third, behind two political neophytes, Mike McGinn (b. 1959), who won the office the following November, and Joe Mallahan. He was gracious in defeat and made no excuses, weather or otherwise, saying of Seattle's voters, "Twice they gave me the honor of doing this. They want a new generation of leadership." Then, after a moment's reflection, he added, somewhat wistfully, that there were "two weeks in December I would love to have back" (The New York Times, August 21, 2009).
Seattle was to have another round of nasty, freezing weather in November 2010 during Mayor McGinn's first year in office. Salt was used to help clear the streets, with mixed results.