There was a week this year when Laura Hamilton could not leave her home in the Lake City neighborhood.
In the first two weeks of February, nearly 20 inches of snow dropped across Seattle, its highest snow total in a decade. Freezing conditions caused it to stick around in some form or another for weeks, messing with bus schedules, causing power outages and running city employees ragged trying to clean up after the mess.
But sidewalks are the responsibility of the homeowner or apartment complex, and Hamilton was left in the lurch.
“The one time I tried to venture out after it all happened, I was trying to get to the bus stop, which is about 50 feet from where you venture into the sidewalk,” Hamilton said. “I got stuck and wasn’t able to get on the bus. Some passengers were kind enough to see that I was trapped and grabbed me and pushed me the remaining feet.”
Hamilton is a power-wheelchair user, one of many in Seattle who already have difficulty negotiating a city where 24 percent of streets lack sidewalks. That doesn’t count the sidewalks in disrepair, such as some in the north end which have buckled in sharp peaks due to nearby tree roots. Apparently, paper does beat rock.
The inches of snow atop a layer of ice made travel near impossible. Hamilton still considers herself one of the lucky ones: She and her husband had a stocked pantry, and he was able to walk to the nearby Fred Meyer to refresh their supplies.
The February storm wreaked havoc on vulnerable populations throughout the region. Several people died of hypothermia, tens of thousands went without power, and schools shut as people hunkered down and bought their local hardware stores out of deicer, trying to ameliorate the worst of it.
It was the kind of severe weather event to which Seattleites are unaccustomed, but may become more likely as the global climate continues to change. And it’s one that Seattle officials have been preparing for since the 2019 snow melted.
“Although we have learned a lot of lessons from February snow, we learn from everything we go through,” said Barb Graff, director of the Office of Emergency Management.
One year it rained so hard that there were 200 landslides in a single weekend. In 1993, a presidential-inaugural day windstorm ripped through the region with windspeeds topping 94 mph, killing six people.
There are three main types of weather systems to watch out for, Graff said. El Niño years tend to be warmer and dryer, La Niña are colder and wetter and then there’s “neutral.”
“There’s a 33 percent chance of absolutely anything,” Graff said.
While that does not sound comforting, it does mean that the city is in full “prepper” mode coming into this winter season, and the lessons learned in February may save lives.
Perhaps most importantly, the snowstorm laid bare inequities in the emergency response system.
The city’s limited number of snowplows went through main arterials, most of which were in the center of the city and a few to the north. That notably left south Seattle — one of the most diverse areas of the city — without as many plowed roads.
That’s a problem in an area of the city that is already known as a food desert, in this case making it hardest for people of color to get supplies and care for themselves and their neighbors.
City organizers are looking at plans through an equity lens, said Ethan Bergerson, a spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Transportation.
Thousands of people who sleep rough every night in the city needed to find safer places to go, out of the elements. A collaboration between the Human Services Department (HSD) and the Department of Parks and Recreation meant two community centers — one in Bitter Lake and the other outside of Garfield High School — welcomed people with a safe place to sleep, showers and food.
Those centers were staffed by members of the Parks department who found themselves operating de facto homeless shelters overnight. Dozens of people were crowded indoors for the better part of two weeks with hygiene facilities and space that wasn’t meant for a constant crush of people.
Conflicts arose, especially toward the end as people were stricken with cabin fever after more than a week holed up in the center.
This year, Parks is looking at trainings to better prepare its employees as well as some modifications to the programming, spokesperson Rachel Schulkin said.
“There will be tighter protocols — less food preparation, more security on site, making sure all supplies are there ahead of time for sheltering needs and stepping up to support snow removal,” Schulkin said.
Supplies are a critical component to the work and, more specifically, the right kind of supplies.
The city was hampered by people’s generosity as they tried to respond to the need of their most vulnerable neighbors. Piles of unsolicited donations began arriving as Seattleites began to venture outdoors again, some helpful and some … not so much.
“There were too many things coming in and coming in at all times, at different locations. Parks bore a lot of the brunt of that when people tried to bring in food, like restaurants looking to donate hot meals. It’s a good problem to have,” HSD spokesperson Will Lemke said.
Residents who get that altruistic feeling will be better served waiting for the city to ask for specific things, Graff said. That means finding out what supplies are needed, where they should go and how they should be packaged.
Other organizations involved in the response, like the Salvation Army, often look for in-kind donations or cash to best serve the needy, Graff said.
As for those sidewalks?
Rooted in Rights partnered with SDOT to create a video showing people the human cost of ignoring their walkways. It tells the story of Bruce, Laura and Neve, who were trapped indoors for four days, one week and three weeks, respectively.
“When the snow builds up, my cane has no orientation. I can’t feel the ground. Everyone uses sidewalks to get around, but for people with disabilities, they’re crucial. If they aren’t cleared, we’re stuck,” Bruce, a deaf-blind person, explained in the video.
Seattle Public Utilities also plans to include materials in utilities bills instructing people about their obligations and how to prepare for the winter. Anna Zivarts was excited to hear it.
Zivarts, the program director for Rooted in Rights, forged the collaboration to create the video. The disabled community needs support from their able-bodied neighbors, and widespread education is key, she said.
“It would be great if there was funding to put some airtime behind it,” Zivarts said.
Just educating people shouldn’t be where the city’s ideas stop, she said. While many U.S. cities that receive large amounts of snow — Boston, New York, Chicago — have publicized the responsibilities of property owners and managers to clear their sidewalks, Sweden took another route.
Many Swedish cities flipped the script on snow plowing. In the United States, highways and well-traveled roads get priority for snow clearing. After a gender-equity analysis, local governments in Swedish communities now clear sidewalks and bike paths first, then local roads and then highways, according to nonprofit news site Streets Blog USA.
Such planning would have been huge for Hamilton. She feels lucky with a good video game to play, a husband who could venture outside and a job that hadn’t yet started. Had those pieces been missing, life would have been much more difficult.
In extreme weather events, check in on your neighbors who may need some help, Hamilton suggested.
“See if they’re OK, because it’s sometimes hard to call out for help if you don’t have a good supp ort network. There are a lot of people who are alone,” Hamilton said.
And finally, plan for people with the most needs, because then almost everyone will be cared for.
“I would just say that when a society takes care of its most vulnerable — even when they do a poor job of it — it makes people with different needs feel seen and feel like a part of the community they are a part of,” Hamilton said. “Natural disasters like this tend to emphasize feeling they’re an outsider or not worthy of consideration.”
Stay safe this winter, readers.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
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