It was interesting to watch Portland’s broadcast weather reports during the record snowstorm last Wednesday. The city got 10.5 inches—a day total second only to 1943’s 14 inches. The swirling snow event hit exactly at rush hour, and forecasters hadn’t predicted its severity. Crippling snowstorms are pretty rare here—happening every five years or so—and each time the unaccustomed citizenry is caught unprepared. For one to fall near March is extremely rare; within a few short hours the city and its inhabitants were locked in a traffic standstill.
When these storms happen, local news programs experience a ratings bonanza. Entire news programs Wednesday evening and through Thursday were entirely devoted to the storm. The tenor of the reports kicked off Wednesday afternoon with reportorial amazement, as a Pacific front slammed into a cold east wind. News-readers turned appropriately glum with the realization that hundreds (possibly thousands) of people were trapped on the freeways and highways, and would have to abandon their vehicles or spend the coming frigid night inside them. Many opted for abandonment, leaving scores of cars on the roadways, soon to be towed by contract towing companies at the owner’s expense.
Big-rigs stacked up on interstate and state highways, some of them jack-knifed to preclude any chance of a quick resumption of the flow of traffic. Intrepid reporters were sent out in all-wheel SUVs to deliver firsthand what was happening on the streets. Most of them got stuck too. One mobile unit caught a spin-out and collision live. Another roving reporter from NBC affiliate KGW spent seven hours inching along amongst the long-haul trucks, and admitted on air that she could “use a bathroom break.”
When transportation officials from Oregon Department of Transportation and Portland Department of Transportation were interviewed on all-weather, all-the-time newscasts, the messaging was clear: the storm was unexpected, unprecedented. Staffing issues related to transportation workers not able to get to work slowed the response. ODOT spokesperson Don Hamilton talked about the constant battle between transportation agencies and Mother Nature, saying, “This time Mother Nature won.”
Thursday and Friday nights brought no relief from the accumulations, with record-tying and record-breaking lows into the 20s and teens. Emergency shelters for the city’s vast homeless communities saw hundreds arriving to escape the bitter cold. Except for a few freeway clusters and main arterials that were cleared, everything that had fallen during those dire Wednesday hours was still piled up and frozen solid—powered snow over an underlayment of ice.
Local news channels did offset the chaos with uplifting segments about people helping people, heroic traipses out of the maw of the storm, and requisite packages featuring joyful school children sledding down hills on snow days.
Amazingly, at this writing, there were only two serious incidents related to the storm: one death attributed to the cold, and a Washington State deputy who was seriously injured—his leg was ultimately amputated—when his vehicle was hit by a wind-blown falling tree.
Enjoying a temperate climate, Portlanders have a reputation for haplessness, grounded in unpreparedness, in the face of significant snowstorms. It’s more than anecdotal that a lot of “idiots” don’t exercise the amount of skill and caution on the road. Curmudgeons from around the state, native Oregonians, routinely blame new arrivals, especially “those Californians.”
By Saturday morning, a peacefulness had settled over the city, with the weekend news teams offering retrospectives of the historic snow to dwindling viewers, and weathercasters promising afternoon highs in the low-40s.
—Portland writer Mark Ellis is the author of the political thriller A Death on the Horizon.