2016: Midday snowstorm strands motorists on area freeways
Editor's note: This story is part of the The Times' special series, "Decade in Review." This series features three stories that helped to define each year of the 2010s. These can retell single stories that captivated readers of the time, a saga that played out across many articles, and even stories that were crowded to the margins by other news at the time but have made a lasting impact on our region.
Everyone knows that when the weather forecast says it's going to snow, it's probably not going to. Or at least, it won't be as much as they say. That possibility of 3 to 4 inches of snow? It'll look more like half an inch, if it comes down at all. The snow will stick to road surfaces and sidewalks at 31 degrees, but a degree or two warmer and it's basically just fluffy rain.
We all know that, if we've been living in the Portland area for a while. It's a fact of life, like how you'll always end up buying more than you meant to get at the grocery store, and the dentist will always find some area of your mouth that doesn't meet with his approval.
On Dec. 14, 2016, the region's commuters found out the hard way what it's like when the reality is just the opposite of what we've all come to expect.
Meteorologists said the area could expect some light snow, but travel conditions weren't expected to be as bad as they were during an ice storm the previous week. The snow was expected to start rolling in around the start of the evening commute, though, setting the stage for some traffic delays.
What ended up happening was far worse than anyone had expected.
Snow started falling in the early afternoon, as the winter storm swept across the Portland area. By mid-afternoon, streets and freeways were covered. The timing of the snowfall meant that as many commuters tried to beat the worst of the predicted storm, traffic was mounting at the same time road conditions were rapidly deteriorating.
With no freezing rain or sleet expected to accompany the snow, many Portland-area school districts decided not to cancel classes or release students early. By the time school let out, vast swaths of the transportation network were in gridlock. Buses couldn't reach schools, or else they got there, loaded up with students and then weren't able to complete their regular routes.
Thousands of students in the Beaverton School District waited at their schools well into the evening, as neither buses nor their parents and guardians were able to reach them. In the Tigard-Tualatin and Hillsboro school districts, some buses full of kids were stuck for hours.
Commutes that normally took 30 to 40 minutes took six to eight hours. In the arduous conditions, some vehicles ran out of gas, or their batteries died, or they became stuck in the snow — or, worse, they slid into ditches, or onto berms, or into other vehicles, causing crashes. In some cases, motorists abandoned their vehicles and headed out on foot. Even tow trucks were bogged down, unable to respond to wrecks or extract stuck vehicles.
On Interstate 5 through Tigard and Southwest Portland, traffic was so badly snarled — the freeway is a major freight corridor, and some semi-trucks were forced to stop in the middle of their travel lanes, unable even to pull over — that some drivers reportedly spent the night in their vehicles.
The following day, the Beaverton School District made an official apology to parents, students and staff, with Superintendent Don Grotting taking responsibility for the decision not to release students early.
The snowstorm left a serious impression. The winter of 2016-17 was one of the coldest and snowiest on record in the Portland area and Washington County, with The Oregonian/OregonLive.com counting eight separate winter storms in all from early December through January. None were as singularly disruptive as the Dec. 14, 2016, debacle.
To date, the most recent "scare" in Washington County — what many worried could be a repeat of the Dec. 14, 2016, storm that paralyzed the region — came in February 2018. But predictions that month of a snowstorm rolling through the county in the middle of the day, threatening the evening commute, turned out to be overblown. The snow came late, and there was less of it than forecasters anticipated; in other words, what usually happens when snow is in the forecast.
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