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Originally published March 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 19, 2009 at 12:27 AM

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Snow excuse was bit of a stretch

Mayor Greg Nickels and the Seattle Transportation Department have admitted a few errors in cleaning up after December's storms but mostly...

Seattle Times consumer-affairs reporter

Mayor Greg Nickels and the Seattle Transportation Department have admitted a few errors in cleaning up after December's storms but mostly blamed the weather for keeping city streets caked in ice and snow for nearly two weeks.

"The snow in Seattle is just always going to be an inconvenience," Nickels initially declared on Dec. 24. "We're not Buffalo or Cleveland."

But as public outrage mounted over impassable streets, the city assigned a senior policy analyst to make the case against Mother Nature. The assignment, it seems, was a tough one.

"Trying to find good weather data is harder than finding good crime data," analyst Robert Scales wrote in a Dec. 31 e-mail. "What is available is incomplete and inconsistent, and no one seems to know where any good sources of historical info are."

Nonetheless, the city trotted out the weather statistics it could find, and the city's transportation department began talking about the series of weather fronts as a single "storm that lasted 13 days and brought a continuous 2-8 inches of snow every other day."

A news release from the mayor's office emphasized that the snow stayed on the ground longer than any other storm in at least 20 years, a fallback position after the research revealed that a 1996 storm dumped more snow on the ground.

Cliff Mass, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, said the December snowfall was the result of seven discrete weather events that produced total snowfall of 9.6 inches.

The snow, as measured at Sand Point by the National Weather Service, reached a maximum depth of 4 inches at one time, far less than the 2 feet of snow measured at the same location in 1996, Mass said.

"We usually get two or three events a year of a few inches each ... very typical," Mass said. "There was no big storm that should have overwhelmed them if they had kept up with it.

"They allowed the classic Seattle failure mode to occur: snow falling on a relatively warm road surface that partially melts it, aided by car heat. Then colder air comes in and freezes it. Then it is hard to get rid of it, particularly when you won't use salt."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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