City snowstorm preparation can pay practical and political dividends

Published 6:00 pm Monday, February 27, 2012

(ARA) – Seattle residents still recall how their hilly city streets once turned into skating rinks as cars, wheels spinning on ice, crashed into parked vehicles. It was like a game of bumper cars.

Without road salt, Seattle was woefully unprepared for a now-infamous 2008 snowstorm that endangered residents, damaged the economy and politically wounded the city’s mayor, who didn’t survive a re-election bid.

It was a learning opportunity, not only for Seattle, but for public officials across the country. The lesson was this: Road salt saves lives, protects commerce and even pays political dividends.

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This year, when a January snowstorm hit, Seattle was ready. Its no-salt policy had been reversed. That enabled crews to employ a critical strategy, applying salt and brine to roads before, during and after the snow. That action helped keep highways safe, traffic moving and cash registers humming.

This year’s snowstorm response went so well The Seattle Times editorial board praised new mayor Mike McGinn for “genuine leadership” and applauded city snowfighting crews for exhibiting “clear control and coordination” – in contrast to what happened in 2008.

“When a snowstorm hits, it’s more than just an inconvenience to motorists,” says Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute. “Lives are at risk if drivers must travel roads that are inadequately salted and cleared. State and local economies take big hits as commerce slows to a winter crawl. Seattle wasn’t ready in 2008, but it was prepared this year.”

Studies cited on the website back up that point. More than 116,000 Americans are injured and 1,300 killed every year on snowy or icy pavement. Snowstorms cost states as much as $700 million per day if roads become impassable.

When public officials are ill-prepared to deal with winter weather, the effect trickles down to everyone, and impacts the most those who can least afford it, according to an economic impact study conducted by IHS Global Insight for the American Highway Users Alliance. The study showed lost wages of hourly workers account for about two-thirds of the direct economic impact of a major snowstorm.

Citizens remember if they lose a day’s worth of pay due to local government’s poor preparation. After Seattle’s 2008 debacle, the news media asked the city’s (now former) department of transportation director about her decision to leave town for Christmas while much of Seattle was snowbound.

The director said her deputies were in charge and she was kept in the loop via e-mail and phone calls, famously adding: “I don’t drive a snowplow.” That response didn’t go over well.

Cliff Mass, a University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences and a renowned Seattle weather prognosticator, says the Pacific Northwest has a weather dynamic in which the temperature of its winter roads are usually above freezing.

“When snow falls on these road surfaces it starts to melt, creating this slushy stuff,” Mass says. “Then, after the snow, we tend to get this cold air coming in and it just freezes everything. We get this ice layer. Once that forms it’s very hard to get off.”

Mass recommends pre-treating roads with salt, which is exactly what Seattle did this year.

“Just a little bit of salt can keep the mixture from not freezing,” says Mass. “Salt makes a big difference with our temperatures and not just before the snow, but after it falls, to prevent icing.”

Morton Satin, the Salt Institute’s vice president of science and research, also known as “the Salt Guru,” says public officials should plan far ahead, investing in proper storage.

“Salt is an economical strategic resource in winter,” he says. “Smart officials will keep at least a year’s supply on hand to ensure lives and commerce are protected. And it also doesn’t hurt come re-election time.”