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Originally published March 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 19, 2009 at 12:28 AM

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Seattle DOT botched snow response

When winter storms rolled over Seattle in December, bringing snow and freezing temperatures to the city, the manager in control of the city's snowplows had no experience directing a major snow response and had put in place as his No. 2 an employee who knew even less on the subject.

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When winter storms rolled over Seattle in December, bringing snow and freezing temperatures to the city, the manager in control of the city's snowplows had no experience directing a major snow response and had put in place as his No. 2 an employee who knew even less on the subject.

Together, Paul Jackson Jr. and Robert Clarke, a former crew chief, orchestrated a disjointed response to the winter weather that left major streets unplowed while Jackson, the man calling the shots, worried aloud about clearing certain streets so the mayor could drive to work, according to interviews with plow drivers and street crews and thousands of department records analyzed by The Seattle Times.

"Mr. Jackson had no idea of what was going on," said Sione Kongaika, a plow driver who recently retired after 31 years with the Seattle Department of Transportation. Two or three days into the first major snowfall, "all he was doing is yelling, 'We have to get more plows downtown. The mayor can't get to the office.' "

West Seattle, home to the mayor and transportation chief Grace Crunican, received an inordinate amount of attention right before Christmas, records show. Ten employees spent a total of 76 hours over two days clearing sidewalks, landings and bus stops in West Seattle, with the largest crew dispatched to the Admiral district where Mayor Greg Nickels and Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis live.

No such emphasis was accorded other neighborhoods, although special attention was given to the private Lakeside School in Northeast Seattle, where a truck sprayed de-icer around the grounds, and a loop of streets in Laurelhurst that were plowed even though they're not among the city's list of priorities for snow cleaning, according to department records.

A series of storms, carrying anywhere from trace amounts to several inches of snow, rolled through Seattle over two weeks in December. Estimates of snowfall vary, but the heaviest snows fell from Dec. 17 to Dec. 26, paralyzing the city until warm weather arrived.

While the weather was undeniably cold and snowy, interviews and a review of about 2,000 records, including e-mails and detailed reports on how the city deployed equipment and crews, show that transportation managers Jackson and Clarke made questionable calls on staffing and deployment.

Transportation crews described confusion and delays in dispatching plows when the snow first began falling, making it harder to stay on top of the game. Meanwhile, the records show trucks hopscotching around the city, attending to special requests or remaining idle while the city announced it was plowing "aggressively" and clearing main routes that residents swore had yet to see a plow.

For example, a Magnolia resident e-mailed the city, reporting that Magnolia Boulevard West — a designated priority street — had not been plowed for at least four days as of Dec. 22.

The city rarely used all 27 of its plows at once, even after heavy snowfall, records show. On Christmas Day, for instance, 11 plows went unused even though they were ready to drive, according to an e-mail from Jackson. The morning of Dec. 24, the city said only 18 plows were deployed.

Transportation-department spokesman Richard Sheridan explained later that managers probably were "resting the equipment" or performing routine maintenance. He offered yet another explanation Tuesday, saying all plows were deployed that evening, even if the records provided to The Times didn't support that.

Decisions by Jackson and Clarke, the city's street-maintenance operations manager, have escaped public scrutiny despite two City Council hearings, a departmental review ordered by the mayor and calls for an independent investigation into the city's Department of Transportation.

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The Seattle Times conducted its own review to provide a more complete explanation of why the city was paralyzed by snow and ice for two weeks, even on days when there was no new snowfall.

Jackson assumed his $108,600-a-year job in June, and Clarke was named to his $68,000-a-year job in August. Prior to joining the department as a paving-crew chief in 2007, Clarke worked as a senior water-pipe worker at Seattle Public Utilities, records show. In an interview, Jackson said that as far as he knows, Clarke had no experience managing a snow response.

Clarke did not return a voice message seeking comment, but Sheridan, the spokesman, touted Clarke's credentials, saying he supervised 22 people on a snow-clearing crew during the winter of 2007-2008 and had "extensive winter-storm-response" experience at the utility department.

Jackson, director of street maintenance, defended his performance in an interview. His previous assignment was as manager of street-surface repair. Jackson said the department always could do better, but he couldn't think of anything he would do differently.

Nickels gave the department a "B" grade for its performance. But he has since announced changes to the city's official snow-response plans, and approved the use of previously banned rock salt to thaw icy roads.

The disconnect

Even as residents complained that main streets were impassable, city leaders — including Nickels, Ceis, the deputy mayor and City Council President Richard Conlin — praised the department.

Ceis e-mailed Jackson and transportation chief Crunican on Dec. 25 to tell them that "SDOT has been magnificent throughout these storms," while Conlin praised the crews' "hard and effective" work.

But Nickels' statements to the public that main streets were drivable stretched credulity for some. In a Dec. 28 e-mail to her colleagues, Councilmember Jean Godden wrote: "While the mayor was on TV saying that 'most arterials are passable,' I looked out the window at Sand Point Way Northeast and laughed ironically."

Conlin and other council members adopted a more questioning tone as public complaints grew louder after Christmas. Council member Tom Rasmussen called for an independent investigation of the department, but support never materialized.

Instead, he was criticized by council member Sally Clark for publicly asking Crunican about the two days she was in Portland over Christmas.

"Tom was out of line putting you on the spot about whether you were in town the entire time," Clark wrote Crunican after the Jan. 6 hearing.

Rasmussen said he called for the investigation, in part, because of conflicting information given by department leaders and ground crews.

The dissonance, however, was not explored in the public hearings, nor was there a true accounting of what the storm cost the city and the community.

Seattle's emergency-management director Barb Graff told the council at a hearing last month that the city had spent at least $3.7 million on the storms. But the figure did not include all the costs involved in the city's sanding strategy or lost holiday-season sales-tax revenues due to impassable streets downtown.

At the Feb. 20 hearing, Councilmember Jan Drago asked if anyone was going to do a full accounting of costs. She was told that no one had asked for one. How, she wondered aloud, could the city know if it should buy more plow blades if it didn't know the cost of going without them? That question also went unanswered.

A new regime

In previous storms, plow drivers had discretion over how best to clear their assigned routes, said plow driver Chris Stuker. City drivers would traverse main routes in tandem, allowing main roads to be cleared and plows to clear feeder streets as they were able to, Stuker and three other drivers said.

But that system was replaced by top-down decision-making that resulted in trucks being pulled from major streets for special assignments and to help less-experienced drivers, most of them working in the south end of the city, according to two drivers who asked to remain anonymous out of a concern for their jobs.

"Nobody knew what was going on, and everyone was calling for help left and right," said Stuker, who has been with the department for 10 years. He said he knew things were breaking down when, around Christmas, he barely could make it home to Beacon Hill after a 12-hour shift because the roads hadn't been cleared.

Crunican said she developed an "insular" view of the storm because she was able to traverse city streets in her four-wheel-drive vehicle. Her spokesman and Graff, the city's top emergency official, blamed the plow drivers, saying they provided a rosier view of road conditions than existed on the ground.

"It's one thing to be in a plow truck and another to be in a Hyundai," Graff explained.

But records show the drivers repeatedly documented poor road conditions, noting icy ruts, compact snow and ice, and hills "too dangerous to travel," even on major thoroughfares that were supposed to be cleared for the health and safety of the public.

Notes on the poor conditions were logged in crew reports, and drivers said they also radioed in conditions to the transportation-command center when they were plowing.

"It was almost worse than the worst 4-by-4 off-roading I've ever done," one driver told The Times, describing efforts to clear downtown streets just before Christmas. "You had a 12,000-pound truck without a load bouncing around like a rubber ball. It was like you're being slapped upside the head both ways."

In an interview, Graff told The Times that she didn't know the drivers were reporting such conditions. But she said it was up to the transportation department to figure out why those reports never made it to emergency planners.

Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or skelleher@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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