Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dial M for Metro Mayhem

This is the tale of the sixteenth of an inch of snow that paralyzed a city, one man's quest to return home, and the Twitter conversation and now-legendary hashtag, #snOMG, that immortalized the event forever.

It all happened November 22, 2010 in the city of Seattle, Washington, once a virtual oasis of moderate, maritime climate, but now a desolate arctic wasteland. A sixteenth of an inch of snow was all it took to gridlock the metropolis and turn the city streets into a frigid nightmare. This is my story.

This was the scene from outside my office at about 2:30 p.m. on the fateful day. The streets were relatively bare, and mainly just wet. But snow had started to fall, mostly obscuring the Space Needle. The National Weather Service had been warning about snow and a cold blast for several days. A TV truck was in my West Seattle neighborhood that morning, waiting for something, anything, to spin out and crash. Alas, nothing. The morning commute went off without a hitch.

But in mid-afternoon things started to go sideways. Schools closed early. People started heading for home. At Independent Colleges of Washington, we've tied our weather closure schedule to that of Seattle University. If SU shuts down, so do we.

Shortly after I snapped this photo, word went up on the Seattle U website that they were closing up shop at three. Vamoose, they said, and so did we. Most of my colleagues had enough sense to make a bee-line for home. I, on the other hand, had an appointment for a haircut at 4:30 p.m. with Julie down at the 4th & Madison Capelli's. I figured I'd head on down and see what was up. Maybe they'd be closed, too, or maybe some snow chickens would have canceled out, and I could get an early ear-lowering and be on my way. Sure enough, Julie's 3:30 was a no-show, I slipped into the chair, and by 4:15 I pulled my wool cap down over my fresh haircut, smooshed it down, and headed down to the bus stop at First and Marion.

It was here that it became apparent that there was trouble afoot. Traffic wasn't much moving, and a police car was blocking the Columbia Street on-ramp to the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which was closed due to excess slipperiness. Any West Seattle-bound buses would have to trundle down First Avenue with everyone else.

If there were any West Seattle-bound buses.

4:48 p.m. My Sweetie, the official scorer, sent me a text message that she was worried, mainly due to all of the stories of mayhem she's reading on the Internets, including the local news source West Seattle Blog. I text back not to worry, that I was at the bus stop, and that a route 21 was approaching. I decided to pass that one up and wait for one that might bring me a little closer to home.

5:03 p.m. Sweetie texts: "I'm really worried. Maybe u should find some place warm to hang out for a while? Apparently no WS buses are getting through." Don't worry, I replied.

5:51 p.m. "Just boarded the 57," I texted. "It's much warmer than the street corner." It was a long wait, but I could still feel my toes. Later I learned much of Sweetie's worry-wartiness was because she didn't realize I was wearing wool socks and sensible show footwear.

6:47 p.m. Sweetie texts that lots of people are trying to walk home to West Seattle. My response: "It's warm on the bus. Almost to the ballpark." This after nearly an hour on board.

8:08 p.m.

After a little over two hours on the bus, our driver took a vote on whether it would be OK to pull over across from Krispy Kreme and dash over there for a bio break. Who knows how long he had been on the bus at this point? The proposal was approved, a good half of the riders, and the driver, dashed over to pee, and several came back with donuts and coffee. The break lasted about 20 or 25 minutes. I don't think we lost a lot of ground to others who stayed in their vehicles. I'm doing fine, despite throwing extra r's onto Krispy Kremer.

9:14 p.m. "Where u at?" Sweetie texts. "Home Depot. But moving more quickly, not that that would take much." I tweeted about the milestone, too. Three hours, 20 minutes, nearly two miles covered. Being at Home Depot, I wondered if we needed any covers for our outdoor water faucets, or if they're hopelessly frozen already.

Indeed. Plus, unfortunately we started to get further and further away from our intended destination. Seeing a big, non-moving line of traffic on the detour to the West Seattle low bridge, and not knowing if we could traverse the bridge should we ever get to it, our driver opted to plow on down First Avenue, past Spokane Street, destination, unknown.

10:16 p.m.

The good thing was, traffic wasn't so heavy down there. But we weren't sure there was a plan. Orionp thought the road trip aspect was intriguing, and I responded that I hoped the driver was headed for Cabo. Sweetie texted "Where u at?" My response: "No idea anymore. Somewhere on First Avenue South of Spokane."

Interestingly enough, we moved well enough on First for a while until we reached a bottleneck approaching the First South Bridge. Once through the bottleneck, though, something amazing happened. We zipped across the bridge, swung back northbound and rolled up West Marginal Way at a high rate of speed (something topping 20 mph, I think), slipped into West Seattle and shot up Avalon Way. There was one last scary moment; a brief bottleneck forced us to stop halfway up Avalon. Dang! We're on a hill! So close and now we're doomed! Fortunately, the bus was chained up and handled the hill with no problem. We dropped off some folks at the Alaska Junction, then made a few more stops along California Avenue SW until we got to Admiral Way. I hopped off, went to Metropolitan Market, picked up the provisions I'd been expected to bring home around six, and walked the last half mile down the hill and home. By the lack of footprints in the snow, I was the only idiot who had walked by in some time.

11:16 p.m. Made it! A bus trip (blue line in the map) that was expected to be about five miles and maybe 20-25 minutes wound up being 11.5 miles (orange line) and taking more than five hours. The strange part was the fact that the trip down First Avenue took the bulk of the time. Though I didn't time it precisely, I think that once we made the turn and headed back north along West Marginal, it didn't take much more than half an hour or 40 minutes to get all the way to Admiral. Throw in a little grocery shopping and a 10-minute walk home, and you've got about a 5 hour, 15 minute commute.

Hats off to our driver, who was great, and all of the passengers, who were mostly in good humor and happy to be warm.

With the advance warning we had for this storm, it doesn't seem it should have been such a disaster. Yet a couple of facts remain. Seattle is not ready for winter weather, and a significant number of Seattle people have no idea how to drive in icy conditions. Until they promise to stay home, we should just button up the city until it all blows over.

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