Critics of Seattle in snow: Shut the hell up

Critics of Seattle in snow: Shut the hell up

Critics of Seattle in snow: Shut the hell up


by Art Thiel


Posted on January 21, 2012 at 8:01 PM


I've had it.

A Los Angeles Times blog headline this week called us "Snow Wimps." The LA Times?! I will listen to the LA Times when it describes the microclimates on Kim Kardashian's continental derriere. That, it would know.

The incredibly shrinking newspaper has nothing to say to me about Seattle's weather. Especially when a Southland sprinkle sends literally millions of Angelenos into freeway aqua-spasms. TV reporters there hold microphones next to curbs so viewers can hear water running.

Kim Murphy wrote the Times story. She lives in Seattle. She told KUOW radio Thursday that her email in-box has been "severely abused" with critical comments. Good. She has no clue.

You know who has a clue? Me. Not because I'm a Cliff Mass wannabe, or a Jeff Renner stalker. It's because I'm a career sportswriter. Normally the gig isn't good for much besides winning bar bets. But it has sent me on assignment to every metropolitan area in the country that has snow, where I've frequently rented cars in winter.

As a multiple-time winter visitor/driver to New York, Boston, Philly, Buffalo, Toronto, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Milwaukee, Green Bay, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Spokane, Pullman and lots of smaller burgs, I will declare my credentials regarding meteorological comparables second to none.

Take it from me: There is no metro area as treacherous as Seattle in snow.

The relative infrequency of these bouts makes it easy to characterize the subsequent mayhem a result of Seattle drivers' fear, inexperience, stupidity, potheadedness or wimphood.


No one, from Jimmy Johnson to Danica Patrick to the premier graduate of the Washington State Patrol's hazardous driving course, can navigate the rare conditions that often attend a major snow dump here.

A driver atop Queen Anne Hill, after a typical snow-melt-refreeze-snow cycle as we've seen this week, simply has no chance to get to the bottom of the hill without sideswiping half the parked cars en route. Pure physics, friends. Not driving skill.

No downtown that receives snow is as as hilly as Seattle. Period. The Priniciple of Verticality. There's just too much up here to get down safely.

Obviously, some of the aforementioned cities have hills, but not nearly as many in such tight proximity with so much high-rise business and housing on the slopes. I know. I've seen the other cities. I've spun a 360 on ice in Dallas, gone off a snowbound highway near Green Bay and become trapped by a multi-car collision in Spokane. In all instances, there was no damage to me, my rental car or anyone else's, because flat terrain allowed me and other drivers to drive slowly out of the problem.

Besides the topography, there's the brand of snow -- wet, gloppy flakes known locally as Seattle cement. Rarely is the snow dry enough to drift, as is often often the case in the Midwest, Plains and parts of the Northeast and even Eastern Washington. I remember driving in a semi-blizzard in Salt Lake City where the highway road surface and its edges were plainly visible throughout the white-knuckle, 45-minute drive, thanks to the wind that cleared the dry flakes. Not fun, but manageable.

Wet snow doesn't drift. It gets compacted onto road beds and sidewalks. Plowing and salting helps, but 90 percent of the streets in a metro area as large as Seattle will never see a plow or a salting truck. Seattle cement can only wait for warm rain to wash most of it away.

Which brings up another problem with two intertwined conditions -- relatively mild temperatures and our undying love of trees.

Obviously, all cities have trees. But the density of our arbor canopy, particularly with the abundance of evergreens, means that ice patches can follow patches of bare pavement in chock-a-block fashion for miles. Many of our boulevard and residential-street accidents are caused by little-seen leftovers of ice in the permashade of a Doug fir.

The problem is compounded by the freeze-thaw of snowfalls that typically happen between temperatures of 28 and 34 degrees. In the Midwest, Plains and Northeast, weeks can go by without melt and refreeze, making driving more manageable. As we've seen this week, the mild Pacific Ocean temps keep us guessing among snow, rain, freezing rain and possibly airborne unicorns, orcs and Storm Troopers (or the Yellow Jackets of KING5 news).

And in many northern cities, the possibility of serious winter is a proposition built into the culture from October through mid-May, so spending civic treasure on plows and salt is as fundamental a winter investment there as is a vente soy latte half-caff, sugar-free vanilla, light foam, no whip, extra hot, to other communities.

In a time of shrinking tax revenues, I get why Seattle doesn't armor-up for winter. Or has everyone forgotten last winter's snow-free mildness? While I understand the city's snow removal crew requires more than a retiree with with a push broom, a city, like most people stuck with common sense, tries to prepare for most things knowing they can't afford to prepare for everything.

Every northern city has to deal with bad winter weather and a certain percentage or reckless, foolish or just ignorant drivers. But circumstances nowhere in the lower 48 compare with what sometimes happens in Seattle. If the hardy-har-hars in Los Angeles and elsewhere, including transplants here who often laugh loudest, want to argue, go ahead and take your Lexus to the top of Queen Anne Hill the next time Danger Jim Forman puts on his yellow parka.

I'll meet you at the body shop and you can tell me how it went.

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