Plows, gallons of deicer couldn't keep up as historic blast forced residents to stay put

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Despite cold weather precautions since the last storm, TriMets MAX system completely shut down for nearly a day because of freezing rain.Portland leaders are praising the city’s response to the early February winter storms.

Among other things, Commissioners Nick Fish and Steve Novick are commending the 350 transportation bureau employees who worked 12-hour shifts since last Thursday, plowing priority roadways 19 times while also dropping more than 1,000 cubic yards of gravel on roads and spraying about 12,000 gallons of deicer. And they are thanking police and firefighters for transporting homeless people to shelters.

“I’m especially proud that no one died during the storm,” said Fish, the City Council president who led the response in the absence of Mayor Charlie Hales, who was out of the country on official business.

Novick, who is in charge of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, agreed, saying, “I think the best way to sum up the city’s response is that everyone knew their roles and had their plans, and they played their roles and executed their plans.”

But to many Portlanders, the results did not look all that different from what happened during the severe storms in early January 2004 and late December 2008, when the city was criticized for being unprepared. Freeways in and out of Portland became parking lots in all three storms. Most city streets remained impassible for days. The majority of residents never saw a city worker in their neighborhood. And TriMet struggled to pick up the slack, with many buses confined to snow routes and MAX and the Portland Streetcar systems eventually grinding to a halt.

Fish admits there were still problems, but says the storms were unusually severe. The city was actually hit by three cold fronts in five days that started with more than 7 inches of snow and ended with freezing rain.

“When a storm dumps snow on the city followed by freezing rain, there’s only so much you can do,” Fish said.

On the other hand, there are a number of reasons Portlanders might wonder if the city can do better — especially because some climate change predictions say the region will experience more frequent severe winter storms in the future.

City’s response plan is limited

During the storm, Fish ran a 13-member Disaster Policy Council that coordinated the efforts of multiple front-line agencies, including the Bureau of Emergency Management, Bureau of Transportation, Water Bureau, Bureau of Environmental Services, Police Bureau and Portland Fire & Rescue.

“I am especially proud of the front-line workers who responded to the emergency from the public safety, water and sewer bureaus,” Fish said.

But they could only do so much because the city only has 55 snow plows. During the storm, they serviced 518 miles of the city’s 4,842 miles of streets. And that does not include any freeways, which are the responsibility of the Oregon Department of Transportation.

City officials discussed buying more equipment after the 2004 and 2008 storms, but decided against it because the additional ones would only be used every few years.

Fish and Novick both agreed those were the right decisions, and they don’t plan to recommend buying any more equipment now.

“We just don’t have enough money. If you ask people if they want the city to buy more equipment for when it snows or fix the streets and sidewalks, they’re going to say fix the streets and sidewalks,” Fish said.

Novick concurred. “It is a strategic (decision) based on resources. We think it is reasonable to have enough plows and people available to deal with the major streets in an event like this,” Novick said. “To plow all the neighborhood streets, we would need to spend a lot of money buying more plows and hiring more people.”

Novick initially estimated it would cost $300 million a year to have enough equipment to service all city streets during similar storms. He later revised the figure to $70 million, with most of the costs being for personnel, not equipment.

Because of that, the response plan limits plowing, sanding and deicing to major roads, such as Burnside, Powell and Division. Neighborhood streets and roads in higher elevations are not touched, forcing many Portlanders to stay inside or risk hazardous conditions if they venture out.

Novick admits the city has rejected at least one alternative.

“One way to address ice is to use salt and brine, but we’ve made a policy decision not to use that because of its impact on our stormwater/sewer system,” Novick said.

TriMet shoulders the burden

The limited transportation response plan puts an extra burden on TriMet at the worst possible time. City and TriMet leaders repeatedly urged Portlanders to take public transit instead of driving, but TriMet was forced to curtail service from the start. Although the city plows major transit routes, it does not plow them on neighborhood streets or at higher elevations. Twenty bus lines ultimately were switched to snow routes during the storms, and all buses were eventually chained, reducing their speed to 25 miles per hour. Eight lines were canceled entirely, including those serving Multnomah Village in Southwest Portland.

MAX and the Portland Streetcar also struggled to continue service but eventually succumbed to the subfreezing temperatures. The problems were the same ones that plagued the lines during previous storms: ice on the overhead power lines and in the below-grade mechanisms that switch trains from track to track. Although TriMet has added shields to the overhead power lines and installed heated switches at various locations since 2008, the precautions eventually proved ineffective against the continuous onslaught of inclement weather.

“The freezing rain moved in very fast and had more moisture than expected. Ice quickly overwhelmed the MAX system, and trains could not move,” said Roberta Altstadt, TriMet public information officer. “We do not take shutting down the MAX system lightly, and TriMet personnel did everything possible to try to keep it going, but it was impossible.”

TriMet slowly restored MAX service through Sunday and was running a normal scheduled by the Monday morning rush hour, however. Bus lines were restored as conditions improved.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - An ODOT snow plow led the way in heavy traffic through North Portland Thursday, Feb. 6, hours after the snowstorm struck the region.

Off to a bad start

Weather forecasters accurately predicted the trajectory of this year’s storm. Snow started falling early Thursday afternoon, just as predicted, and it was followed two days later by freezing rain, again just as predicted.

But few people apparently heeded the warnings. Businesses, schools and government buildings opened as usual on Thursday morning. By the time the snow started falling around noon, as predicted, everyone had to fight through worsening conditions to get home, including those who had to pick up their children. As a result, freeways in and out of Portland were clogged by early afternoon, and then it was too difficult to run snow plows on them. Many commuters spent hours in their cars. Accidents and abandoned cars added to the delays.

By Friday morning, most Portlanders figured out to stay home. But the city kept proposing public transit as an alternative. The delays at bus stops kept growing. Many MAX riders needed shuttle rides when MAX shut down Saturday evening. The city did not send an official cellphone alert to stay home until Sunday morning.

What’s next?

City agencies involved in the response will debrief with the commissioners in charge of them and the Bureau of Emergency Management during the next few days and weeks. The bureau then will issue a report analyzing the responses and possibly recommending changes.

Fish says he already knows of several areas where the city agencies might be able to improve their responses. They include more communications with TriMet to better understand the problems caused by increased transit use, closer coordination with Multnomah County and area hospitals to anticipate and meet health care needs, and increased use of social media to get the word out on changing conditions.

“Social media has changed everything about how to communicate with people. We need to step up our use of Twitter and Facebook to better get the word out,” Fish said.

Fish also wants to work with the business community to present a more balanced message during future storms.

“In addition to telling people to stay off the roads, we need to tell them to be sure to frequent local businesses in their neighborhoods that can really be hurt when things shut down,” Fish said.

TriMet General Manager Neal McFarlane says his agency will learn from the storm, too.

“Transit again proved how critical it is to this region, especially during this extreme storm,” McFarlane said. “Our riders have been terrific and patient as our dedicated TriMet team worked around the clock to safely transport them, whether they chose not to drive or could not drive during these extreme conditions. While we’re still working the storm, it’s a bit premature to talk about lessons learned, but we always focus on continued improvement and will assess how we performed and how we can improve going forward.”

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