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Snowpocalypse

Started: 2019-02-26 19:38:47

Submitted: 2019-02-26 22:55:39

Visibility: World-readable

In which Seattle is inundated by a couple of inches of snow, shutting down the city and pushing its availability to 98%

Snow came to Seattle the first week of February, and the city wasn't ready to handle it.

Snow lurked in the forecast for Sunday night. (I stayed at my house on Sunday, as SRE on-call for my service; I got paged late in the morning and then spent the rest of the day on laundry and the other things that occupy my normal Sunday.) The snow started falling late in the afternoon, but the temperature remained above freezing, so it didn't stick on our street in Wallingford. The only place I could see snow accumulating was on the deck; presumably the ceiling was insulated well enough that snow could accumulate on top of it.

At 22:30, just as I was thinking about going to bed, Seattle Public Schools decided that there was enough snow to put school the next day on a two-hour delayed start. The snow was not yet sticking in Wallingford, though presumably it was sticking somewhere.

Then at 05:15 Julian's preschool canceled school (and texted us); and at 05:30 Seattle Public Schools canceled school (and called me).

Snow in Wallingford
Snow in Wallingford

We were lucky enough to have an au pair who had nothing better to do than take care of our kids while school was out. (We couldn't let her watch our kids all day for an entire week; but a couple of days was ok.)

Julian plays in the snow
Julian plays in the snow

There were three inches of snow on the ground in Wallingford, just enough to cover the street until a car drove on it. (It was the least amount of snow I'd ever seen school canceled for; in Boulder, it'd take more like a foot of snow to consider canceling school.) I walked to work, one mile, in the snow covering the sidewalks. My office reduced services somewhat, to avoid requiring too many people to come into work; but I decided I would rather work from the office, where at least I didn't have loud children bouncing around the house.

Snow on 37th Street
Snow on 37th Street

I had no trouble getting to and from work; but Seattle Public Schools canceled school on Tuesday as well (and waited until 05:30 again to call me again, because of course I wanted to be woken up early in the morning by a phone call that I can't figure out how to opt out of). By Tuesday, the snow on the sidewalks in Wallingford had melted and refrozen into a thin layer of ice; neither I nor any of my neighbors had any snow shovels. (I had gotten rid of my aging snow shovel when I moved away from Boulder three years ago. I don't know what my neighbors' excuses were, but no one seemed to have understood the importance of shoveling their sidewalks and driveways to avoid ice.) In Wallingford, and Fremont, the roads looked clear; but I heard that elsewhere in the city there was more snow. (I never saw a single snow plow for the duration of the snow.)

Icy sidewalk in Wallingford
Icy sidewalk in Wallingford

By Wednesday, schools finally reopened, though with a two-hour delayed start. I briefly allowed myself to hope that we'd passed the snow danger, but it turned out we were merely in the eye of the hurricane: the forecast for late in the week began forecasting apocalyptic amounts of snow -- multiple inches of snow! My office announced that all services would be shutting down at noon on Friday, the hour at which the snow was forecast to arrive, and school announced an early closure.

(The closure of the office proved somewhat problematic for my scheduled lunch interview on Friday. Normally I take the candidate to lunch at the on-site cafe, but with lunch service canceled, I instead took the candidate across the street to a Thai restaurant (and then expensed the lunch).)

Snow falls in Fremont
Snow falls in Fremont

The snow arrived, as forecasted, shortly after noon, in big flakes that fell lazily from the gray sky. Without lunch, the office cleared out, and after an hour I left as well. But instead of going straight to my house I stopped by Gasworks Park to observe the preserved industrial equipment in the snow. A half-inch of snow had accumulated on the grass; the ground was barely distinguishable from the sky hanging low over the blacked gas works.

Snow falls at Gasworks Park
Snow falls at Gasworks Park

It kept snowing through the afternoon and evening; by night, the neighborhood was covered in a blanket of soft snow, glowing under the street lights.

37th Street in the snow
37th Street in the snow
Wallingford in the snow
Wallingford in the snow

By Saturday morning, the snow had stopped, leaving us with up to five inches of snow. I rummaged around in the garage and found a dustpan that worked as a makeshift shovel; with it, I was able to clear the sidewalk and front walk.

Snow in Wallingford
Snow in Wallingford

The neighbor that lives behind us (and has an easement to use our driveway) used a big push broom to sweep away enough snow to get his cars out. I dug my car out from under the snow on the driveway and drove to Home Depot, where I found an ample supply of snow shovels. The roads were nearly empty, and were mostly clear. I returned to the house and shoveled the rest of the driveway.

Snow on Motoko
Snow on Motoko

Kiesa took the kids to Gasworks Park, where much of Wallingford had descended to sled in the patchy snow on Kite Hill, overlooking Lake Union, including one giant inflatable unicorn.

On my way back from Home Depot I noticed people skiing around Green Lake, so I found my cross-country skis and boots and returned to Green Lake to ski one lap around the lake. The sky was clearing, and some sun was shining through the patchy clouds. The park surrounding the lake was filled with people playing in the snow: some walking, some skiing, some building snow-people.

Snowy pier at Green Lake
Snowy pier at Green Lake

On Sunday, the forecast again called for apocalyptic amounts of snow (perhaps up to a few inches again!). I wanted to get out of the house so I drove to Magnuson Park, perched on a promontory jutting into Lake Washington, and walked along the snow-covered paths under bleak gray skies, looping around between sports fields and a dog-park and a playground to small ponds running through a (possibly-restored) wetland.

Ice covering Promontory Ponds
Ice covering Promontory Ponds

The park's boat launch was abandoned for the winter, reaching out into the steel-gray lake while a brisk wind blew across the water, driving small anxious waves over the end of the dock and onto the concrete ramp.

Magnuson Park Boat Launch
Magnuson Park Boat Launch

My last stop at the park was The Fin Project, an art installation featuring the dive planes from decommissioned Cold War nuclear submarines, sticking out of the ground like dorsal fins and arranged in a graceful pattern as if they were attached to a pod of orcas, each with a tiny plaque identifying the submarine that supplied the dive plane.

The Fin Project in snow
The Fin Project in snow

The snow returned Sunday evening. School had already been canceled for Monday, and all services at my office were canceled for Monday. By Monday morning we had another five inches of snow on the ground. Kiesa hired Calvin to shovel the sidewalk; I shoveled the driveway, then called into my string of morning meetings from home. I was running out of coffee, though, so I drove into the office in the afternoon. I had no trouble getting into the office, and it was pleasantly empty, letting me focus on work with minimal distractions.

Slush accumulates in Fremont
Slush accumulates in Fremont

By the evening the snow picked up again, and slush quickly began to accumulate on the streets in Fremont. My drive home was the only time I felt the slightest bit concerned about the state of the roads; though I only had a mile to go.

My reaction to Seattle's reaction to the storm was perfectly summed up by an epic Twitter thread (which you should read in its full glory, it's hilarious):

School was canceled again on Tuesday, and my office's services were also closed. ("My district has announced that schools will reopen never," the Twitter thread said. "Please educate your children however you see fit.") I drove to work because I had a better desk there, and so I could get away from my loud children, and because with the office half-empty the open-plan office wasn't quite so distracting.

On Tuesday evening, just as I was beginning to think that the Snowpocalypse was over and Seattle had finally figured out that Home Depot had a giant supply of snow shovels, Seattle Public Schools canceled school again, mumbling that there were still snow and ice on some of the roads, as if they were waiting for the entire snowfall to melt before reopening school. School finally opened (albeit with a late start) on Thursday -- just in time for a day-and-a-half of school before President's Day and the week-long previously-scheduled Winter Break.

I have a hypothesis that cities maintain an informal weather-related availability SLO between 99% and 99.5%. This suggests that it probably doesn't make sense for the city to provision enough snow plows to handle one or two extreme snow days per year; but other than that, the city should be able to handle the snow it receives. A 99%-available city can be unavailable for 3.5 days per year. This year, however, Seattle was unavailable for 6 days; so I calculate its annual availability (for the trailing twelve months) at no better than 98.4%. Seattle is not meeting my expectations for how available a city should be.

Seeing snow reminded me that I do like snow, and spending most of my life in Colorado trained me to deal with it; but I spent most of two weeks bemused that the entire city of Seattle shut down for a couple of inches of snow. I was not especially impressed.

Everyone I'm sure, knows that when something goes wrong somewhere,
anywhere, anytime it is automatically SCOTT'S FAULT. Your dog ran away?
SCOTT'S FAULT. Your car won't start? SCOTT'S FAULT. Your power got
shut off because you forgot to mail the check? Yep, once again, SCOTT'S
FAULT. It is very similar to the "six degrees of separation" theory.
Somehow everything can be tied back to Scott.
- Renee Galvin, 25 October 2000