Bracing for Seattle ‘snow’: Armageddon with a smile

As I type this, Seattle–or at least its media–is in a near panic bracing for what is being described as the first “snow” of the winter. I use quotes because the likely accumulation of falling crystalline water ice–yes, that’s the scientific description of snow–seems to be minimal in most places that aren’t on top of mountains.

That hasn’t stopped the media–especially TV and radio–from acting like Armageddon is upon us. But Armageddon with a smile. For one example, click here and then go to the video to watch the glowingly beaming weather lady on last night’s KING-TV Channel 5 broadcast. The sunny countenance sort of gives the lie to any notion that the station thinks Seattle is in for a hard one. Can you imagine someone smiling so much reporting about an impending tornado, or a looming tsunami?

Since I am New To Seattle, this will be my first local snow event (should it comes to pass). Whatever the outcome, I expect to be highly entertained by the media hype.

I spent half my life in the vicinity of Philadelphia and New York City, which averages about 24 inches of snow a year. That wasn’t Buffalo’s 94 inches or Minneapolis’s 50 inches. But it was a decent amount and certainly more than Seattle’s average (depending on which source you consult) of 8 to 11 inches. When I was growing up, it took about four inches to close the schools. Otherwise, we just mushed to classes in our snowboots.

Media fear and loathing about looming bad weather helps sell ads. In Houston, where I lived for seven years, the big weather event (aside from torrential rains and a surprising number of tornadoes) wasn’t snow, but hurricanes. Hurricanes are even better for TV than rain or snow because the run-up can last upwards of 10 days. Drama. For 20 years, one of the Houston stations, KHOU-TV (owned, as it happens, in common with KING-TV in Seattle), had as its meteorologist Neil Frank, the retired head of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. For him, any hurricane within 2,500 miles of Houston got him so excited on air. He seemed like a weathered version of the crazed newscaster in the movie Network. (“I’m wet as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”) To me, Frank looked like he was foaming at the mouth, in need of a rabies shot or something.

Of course, about 99% of those hurricanes ended up coming nowhere near Houston. But that did nothing to dampen Frank’s enthusiastic predictions, and presumably his ratings. Hell, even I switched to his station (but only when a hurricane actually got into the Gulf of Mexico).

Around Los Angeles, where I lived until last summer, hurricanes are a non-issue, and so is snow. Earthquakes are, but they can’t be predicted, doing the TV dogs no good at all. So they’re forced to play up incredibly skimpy amounts of the infrequent rain, often less than a quarter-tenth-of-an-inch at a throw–an amount that no one in Seattle would blink at. Nevertheless, in such situations, several L.A. stations grandly go on “Storm Watch.”  TV needs pictures, and fleeting rainfalls aren’t very accommodating. The result is that junior night-shift members of TV station news staffs are sent out to do a stand-up at one of several intersections in the city’s San Fernando Valley where storm run-off wells up a couple inches on the street due to poor drainage. Not exactly Noah and his ark.

To me, this weekend’s weather in Seattle looks like roughly the same magnitude.

Now I know that Seattleites have a fixation with their weather and have had some unpleasant recent encounters with the white stuff. These include the snow event two days before Thanksgiving 2010 when city officials misjudged how low the temperature would get, with the result that the laid-down brine froze, snarling traffic for hours. There’s also the botched response to the 2008 storm widely credited with cutting short the tenure of Mayor Greg Nickels. The city is hilly and drivers–already among the county’s most inept— don’t have enough experience driving in such challenging conditions. So maybe the stations are playing to their audience.

Still, to me the lack of perspective is fascinating. I plan to just kick back and watch the tube. Cheaper than going to one of those Armageddon movies.

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Bracing for Seattle ‘snow’: Armageddon with a smile — 13 Comments

  1. Pingback: Shoveling snow in Seattle: “You must be new here” | New To Seattle

  2. Opportunity cost, or an analysis of fixed cost versus variable cost? I don’t have any data in Seattle to back this up, but in other places I’ve lived most of the cost of snow removal on the municipal level wasn’t equipment–mainly plows attached to trash trucks and dump trucks purchased for other purposes–but overtime pay for drivers. If that’s true here, snow removal is mainly an operating expense–like say, police for a parade–rather than a capital expenditure. My trash didn’t get picked up yesterday; I’m assuming it was because diversion of trash trucks to snow-removal duty. I’ve lived in places where it only snows once every 20 years–Houston, Los Angeles. That sure isn’t Seattle.

  3. Hey NTS:

    I’ve lived in Colorado, spent a three-year-sentence in Boston, but grew up in Seattle. Having lived in places that get a lot of snow, I can appreciate where you are coming. Having said that, being a writer for Forbes, I suspect that you also appreciate the concept of opportunity cost.

    It doesn’t snow that much here, so the payoff from sinking tens or hundreds of millions of dollars into capital equipment, logistics, contingency plans, etc associated with storms that may or may not materialize is significant. That’s money that has to be budgeted for every year, and every dollar of snow removal money is money that can’t go towards filling potholes.

    If civic resources were infinite and we could invest the same amount of resources in snow removal as Buffalo NY without sustaining any net loss in overall welfare we’d do it and the occasional snowfall would be no big deal. Since we can’t, and don’t, more than a few inches of snow can cripple the city, particularly if it persists. Conversely, if you gave Buffalo Seattle’s topography and per-capita investment in plows, etc, they’d be every bit as hosed as we are despite all of their talk about “knowing how to drive in the snow,” etc.

  4. Hello New To Seattle,

    People talk about the geography, and the unreadiness of the drivers due to lack of practice, but to me there is another reason why the city sits up and takes notice at a 2% chance of chilly weather…

    SNOW DAYS!!!

    Yes, wonderful snow days. Though there aren’t many of us out here who actually grew up here, those who did fondly remember from our youth schools being shut down at the merest chance of a light frost. We snow-coddled adolescents grew up and became Microsoft PMs, Boeing managers, and the like, and, with our diaspora into the Seattle business world we took the immutable law that One Does Not Drive or Work When There Be Snow.

    So, at a half inch, an employee may look out their window, and see the interstate fairly clear, but write to their manager claiming Yeti-Loving conditions, while the manager, looking out their window and seeing a light dusting, will let it pass with a wink and a nod.

    After all, who wants to risk their precious neck commuting to work when no less an authority as Ridgewood Elementary has declared the roads impassible, and ordered that children stay home, for their own safety.

    And so our next generation is taught to love/fear the snow.
    And I guess there are worse things.


    • At least until Seattle gets much colder and/or more snowfall. I’d have to think about supporting an income tax for the infrastructure. I’m in favor of a pay as you use it personally, but that’s hard/impossible to quantify on local roads.

  5. Dorthea’s comments are how I felt about Seattle snow for decades.

    But I got stuck on the freeway for 3 hours on a snowy day in Seattle a couple of years ago because I did not head home in alarm when the first flakes started falling. Seattle does not get enough snow to justify buying much snow removal equipment. We may appear to overreact for 9 out of 10 snow forecasts, but I’m going to be preparing-for-Armageddon group for now on.

    • It does seem true, as eskercurve said, that local authorities are not terrific at keeping the streets in shape even when very little happens. Indeed, on KOMO radio yesterday I heard various city spokespersons all but admit the city makes no effort whatsoever to clear any street that does not carry a bus route. So that means about 99% of all Seattle streets are on their own to start with. Such a policy would be totally unacceptable in any of the other colder-climate places I’ve lived, like the Philadelphia area and New York City. Even worse, the city seems to have problems with streets that have bus lines. Yesterday afternoon, en route to attending a book author’s appearance at Elliott Bay Book Co., I cut through the downtown area and went east on Pike Street. The road was a total mess, with stalled or skidded city buses due to ice on the incline just east of the Convention Center. Since the King County Metro Transit bus map says five lines go down Pike Street, it will be interesting to hear the city’s explanation for its MIA performance there.

      • That’s my initial reaction too when I first went to Seattle from my midwest roots. Chicago has such an efficient snow clearing system even a foot barely makes a dent in normal traffic patterns unless it gets really cold so that pipes start bursting.

        Though when I rationalized it, Seattle does indeed lie in a “cold region” but we’re “protected” by the Olympics and the Pacific currents from more northerly like weather. We’re the same latitude as Fargo, but get far less cold. And the state has to deal with such rugged highways as WA-2, I-90, and the passes, that I can suddenly rationalize how Seattle can’t cope with some of the crystallized water. I think if we had an income tax we could support it and our aging infrastructure boom foundation from the 60s (a coworker of mine who’s in his mid-50s said his dad helped lay the original concrete for I-5 through Seattle, and much of it the same today!).

        But I won’t advocate for an income tax yet!

  6. Thing is though, when it does snow, usually it is pretty bad, as the DOT is woefully unprepared for any accumulation more than what will naturally melt within 24 hours.

  7. Deja vu for me: One of the years I lived in Houston, a weather forecast was issued in the middle of the day about an imminent snowstorm. The schools immediately let out, and downtown businesses sent their employees home early. By 4 p.m. the central business district where I worked was a ghost town. No snow fell. I unsuccessfully tried to nominate the event for a new Guinness Book of World Records category: “Least amount of snow to close a city on account of snow: zero.”

  8. Speaking as a native Seattle-ite, we love our “snowstorms”. The anticipation, the suspense, the disappointment when it doesn’t materialize, the “snow days” at work – everyone in the grocery store is friendlier, strangers swap stories – and all of the only requires the hint of less than an inch of the white stuff!

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