Okay so last night’s “snow” was not quite a blizzard and was instead more like a light dusting of parmesan. But we’ve got a long wet cold winter ahead, and there’s no telling when the city will have to shut down for one big massive snowdump that could cut power, strand drivers, down trees, and generally cause beautiful frosty mayhem.
Fortunately, Seattle’s worked out some resources and routines to keep the chaos at bay. Here’s everything you need to make sure you’re prepared for the next big snowstorm, whether it happens this year or next. The short version is that you should have plenty of supplies on hand, various websites bookmarked, and a diary if you want your rescuers to know how you died.
How to Prepare for the Next Storm
Seattle doesn’t have any dedicated snowplows—when streets need clearing, the city just sticks plows on the front of whatever other trucks happen to be handy. There aren’t enough of those trucks to handle the whole city, and some streets are too steep to be plowed, so when heavy snow comes, you should be prepared for some streets to remain covered until it melts. That means you might not be able to get to the store for some time.
The city advises that you stock up in advance with a handful of supplies: A snow shovel, a bag of street salt, warm clothes and blankets, flashlights, first aid kits, and enough food and water and medicine for three days. When snow is in the forecast, sprinkle some rock salt on the sidewalk to prevent ice from forming, and shovel twice a day while the snow is falling.
Every year, a handful of people try using kitty litter to de-ice the sidewalks. Do not, please.
Landslides are a Real Danger
The Seattle area experienced a series of damaging landslides in 1996 and 1997, including one that killed a family on Bainbridge Island. A little more than 8% of the city has been identified as slide-prone, about a third of which is designated as single-family residential, and they can occur without warning, particularly after rapid snowmelt.
Fortunately, there’s an online tool that monitors and reports on Seattle’s landslide risk—updated once per hour, the graphs indicate the relative risk of landslide based on a variety of factors. If you live along Seattle’s northwest or northeast slopes, you should be particularly attentive to risk, because landslides have been increasing in those areas according to the city. Areas of recent landslide activity include Southwest Magnolia, Northwest and Southwest Queen Anne, East Queen Anne, Alki, Admiral Way, West Beacon Hill, Interlaken, Madrona, and Pigeon Point.
The city has projected that it may be unable to meet peak demand for power in 2021. On top of that, wind and falling branches account for about half of local outages—it's only in the downtown area that power lines are protected underground. (Which makes them vulnerable to vault fires, which is a topic for a separate panic-piece.) If you were here in 2006, you’ll remember how parts of the city went without power for up to a week after a particularly bad outage.
Here’s how to prepare ahead of time: First, make sure you have three days of food and water on hand. Have a list of contacts outside the area so you can let people know you’re okay—or that you need help. Have a little cash on hand in case ATMs don’t work.
During an outage, don’t use generators or grills inside your home. Keep the fridge closed. And unplug electronic devices, because they could be damaged when power comes back on.
And if you have medicine that needs refrigeration, or medical equipment that needs power, check with a medical provider to make sure your care isn’t interrupted. Check the city’s Lifeline program, which works with people whose health may be impacted by power interruptions.
It’s easy to offer advice like “make sure you have enough blankets,” but over ten thousand people in King County don’t even have permanent stable shelter. Last year, a man with no fixed address died at the Sodo light rail station during cold weather, and this year the pandemic makes it even harder to secure safe shelter.
Several resources may be able to help if you’re outside during dangerously cold temperatures. Urban Rest Stop can provide warm showers, laundry, and restrooms, and Solid Ground provides transportation downtown. You can find a directory of shelters here, and also by calling 211. Seattle just launched a new initiative called HOPE, or “Homelessness Outreach Provider Ecosystem,” with the goal of finding shelter for about 5% of Seattle’s unhoused population. Way to dream big.
Here’s what you should do to drive safely when it snows: Don’t.
Just stay off the road. Really. Even under the best of conditions, there’s no such thing as a crash-proof car; but when there’s ice and reduced visibility, you’re heading into significantly heightened danger.
If you absolutely must drive, slow down. Check the WSDOT’s recommendations for traction tires and chains—certain roads will be restricted unless you have them on your car. Check for pass closures here.
And make sure your car is well-stocked with supplies: A flashlight, batteries, a blanket, snacks, gloves, boots, first aid, spare cellphone battery, jumper cables, flares, sand, and a whistle. In 1991, an elderly couple got stuck in the snow in California and left a diary of their slow deaths over several days and I have never been able to get the story out of my mind.
Okay that was a huge bummer, I'm sorry. Snow is also beautiful and fun and really nice! When the next blizzard comes—if the next blizzard comes, considering that climate change may make snow a thing of the past—you should also be ready to go out and enjoy it, for crying out loud. Get yourself some nice cold-weather clothes and waterproof boots and go for a walk. I personally like the Arboretum and Volunteer Park when it's snowy—the view from the tower is quite lovely.
Just remember to watch out for ice.