Seattle's streets

Snow Daze

A brief history of disaster politics.

By Eric Scigliano March 20, 2009

Politicians can promote big causes, from battling global warming to (in George W. Bush’s global fantasy-baseball game) sending democratic dominoes tumbling across the Middle East. But what voters care about is, Can you keep the streets open and safe? Failing to clear roads and otherwise deal with nature’s mischief can rock political careers, as Mayor Nickels is now discovering. On rare occasions it even overturns them, as this selective history shows.

February 9-11, 1969: An unexpected 15-inch snowfall paralyzes New York City for three days, eventually causing 42 deaths—half of them in Queens. Forty percent of city snow-removal rigs fail to work. Residents of the outer boroughs are furious when city crews speedily plow Manhattan, where Mayor John Lindsay lives and works, but neglect them. Lindsay must switch from limousine to four-wheel-drive to foot to get to Queen, where he is booed. He is nevertheless reelected in November.

1971-72: Lindsay seeks the Democratic presidential nomination, winning several primaries. Queens residents trail his campaign, heckling him about the snow debacle. He loses to George McGovern, who loses to Richard Nixon in a record landslide.

December 23, 1973: An earthquake destroys most of Managua, Nicaragua, killing 10,000 and leaving 50,000 homeless. The National Guard joins in widespread looting. Dictator Anastasio Somoza and his family mishandle and misappropriate hundreds of millions of international relief dollars. This provokes widespread opposition leading to harsh repression, the Sandinista rebellion, Somoza’s overthrow, and the US-sponsored contra insurgency.

January 1979: Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic’s inept blizzard performance severely tarnishes the formerly unstoppable Daley political machine Bilandic inherited. Two months later Jane Byrne defeats him in the primary.

Christmas Eve 1982: A snowstorm overwhelms Denver’s 45 plows. In May William McNichols Jr., mayor since 1968, is unseated by an upstart challenger.

January 1987: Washington, DC’s Mayor Marion Barry is attending the Super Bowl and playing tennis at the Beverly Hills Hilton when snow buries the District, making national laughingstocks of mayor and city. Citizens lash Barry again in 1996 when it takes nearly a week to clear the streets of snow. In between, in 1994, Barry is elected to a fourth, nonconsecutive term after serving a federal sentence for cocaine possession—proof that some politicians are immune to any sort of snow scandal.

December 1996-January 1997: Heavy snow overwhelms Seattle’s 11 snowplows. Newly elected City Council member Charlie Chong urges the city buy 10 used truck-mounted snowplow blades for $7,000, a tenth of the new price. City officials and miffed fellow councilmembers resist, contending Seattle doesn’t get enough snow to justify them. Bellevue snatches up the blades. Seattle subsequently spends $150,000 on new and used plows. “Snowplow Charlie,” buoyed by citizen ire, runs unsuccessfully for mayor in 1997.

September 2005: Hurricane Katrina costs at least 1,836 lives and $80 billion in damage, depopulates large sections of New Orleans, sparks wide outrage at Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco (who does not seek reelection), Mayor Ray Nagin (reelected), federal flood and disaster agencies, and President George W. Bush. Bush declares unforgettably, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job,” shortly before hapless FEMA director Michael Brown is sacked.

February 2006: A record snowstorm dumps nearly 27 inches on New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, determined not to reprise Lindsay, puts the city on a war fitting but still takes flak from the boroughs. Two years later he nixes a run for president.

December 2008: Two weeks of snow and freeze-ups paralyze Seattle. Priority arterials such as Magnolia Boulevard go unplowed for days. Metro Transit fails to send buses to hilltop neighborhoods such as Queen Anne even after roads are cleared. Downtown Christmas sales plummet. The city refuses to salt roads on environmental grounds, then after the emergency ends announces it will salt in the future. Mayor Nickels declares wrongly that main streets are drivable and gives his agencies a “B” for snow removal; Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis calls their work “magnificent.”

March 19, 2009: After interviewing street workers and reviewing “thousands of department records,” the Seattle Times reports that: Crews neglected other neighborhoods while they rushed to plow West Seattle, where Nickels, Ceis, and city transportation director Grace Crunican live, and the downtown streets those honchos take to work. Many city snowplows sat idle. The city actually had tons of rock salt on hand in December. And its two top snow-removal managers had no experience managing snow removal. Neither is named Brownie.

UPDATE, March 20, 3pm: Mayor Nickels today asked the city Ethics and Elections Board to investigate whether SeaTrans crews performed special snow clearing from bus stops and sidewalk landings in West Seattle—i.e., did they favor his neighborhood?

“Let me be clear," Nickels declared. "If I learn that anyone acted improperly or unethically, there will be discipline and consequences. The people of Seattle expect every employee to uphold the highest ethical standards and I will not accept anything short of that. We will demand answers to these management questions because the public must have confidence in the people charged with improving and carrying out our city’s snow response plan.”

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