The Worst Commute Ever: What Went Wrong Last Night In Portland

9pm Thursday…

After the disastrous December 29, 2009 commute (the worst I had ever seen), I wrote quite a long blog post explaining what went wrong with the forecast.  This time it’s a bit different.  Most of the problem wasn’t with the forecast or the forecasters, although we should accept a small part of the blame as you’ll see.  I don’t want this to turn into some diatribe against our hard-working friends who work for the government, so I’ll keep it brief.  If I get any facts wrong, PLEASE correct me in the comments below.

 

First, the forecast was CORRECT.  The Portland NWS forecast 2-5″ of snow and my 1/2″-2″ were fine.  Actually anything over 1″ would have had the same effect.  The drama had unfolded within the first two hours when the initial snowfall began.  Timing was excellent, with flurries beginning around Noon-1pm and then real accumulations beginning around 1:30 west metro and a little later east and north metro.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

  1. MANY OF YOU DECIDED TO WAIT UNTIL SNOW WAS IN THE AIR OR ON THE GROUND TO HEAD HOME  I was driving into work 11:30-12:30 and highways were fine, traffic was light.  Apparently lots of people didn’t head home at noon or 1pm.
  2. PORTLAND FREEWAYS HAVE NOT KEPT UP WITH OUR POPULATION GROWTH  This isn’t meant to be a political statement, but just a fact that we are over capacity.  We’ve run one story after another about the constant traffic jams on various freeways.  I remember moving back to the area in 1991 and thinking “wow, there are still only two lanes on I-5 by the Memorial Coliseum.  They’ll probably add a lane soon”.  Well, it’s 25 years later!  How is it possible that in a metro area of 1.5 million people we still have a two lane freeway through the central core???  So regardless of the choices that have led to this, if you have a surge of people suddenly head out on the highways, the roads will get jammed.
  3. TOO MANY PEOPLE WERE TAKING A BIG CHANCE DRIVING A CAR THAT SHOULDN’T BE ON SNOWY ROADS.  Regardless of the reasons for driving that vehicle, many of us share responsibility for this one.  People driving cars and/or tires that shouldn’t be on ice/snow are a big problem because they caused backups for others.
  4. SOME SCHOOL DISTRICTS (INCLUDING PORTLAND/GRESHAM/BEAVERTON) CHOSE TO DO A FULL DAY AND HAVE BUSES ON THE ROADS WHEN SNOW IS FALLING.  Of course reporters have grilled all the local districts about the fiasco.  They have all apologized profusely and plan to be a bit more careful next time.  Fair enough.  Here’s an interesting tidbit…The superintendent of the Beaverton District said this in his note to parents: “Unfortunately, the weather arrived sooner than expected”.  Of course that’s not true.   But after thinking about it, I realized that statement could be directly related to our forecasts…item #5
  5. FORECASTS HAVE IMPROVED DRAMATICALLY THE PAST 15 YEARS, EXPECTATIONS ARE HIGHER.  Back in 2000 we would have just forecast “snow developing, 1-4″ by evening”.  But nowadays we can often pinpoint the timing and give a more detailed forecast.  Thus my 2pm-9pm snow forecast the day before.  Of course there’s no reason it couldn’t have started at 1pm or 3pm, or even 12 or 4.  But people are trusting us more than ever.  The key here is that we are implying more accuracy than we can REALLY deliver most of the time. One phrase I never use on TV and we don’t use at FOX12 but I hear used a lot:  YOUR HOUR BY HOUR FORECAST.  That’s a load of TV marketing crap; we can’t forecast down to the hour and neither can your app.  But sometimes we can get close.  To summarize:  If we say 2pm-9pm, it’s probably safest to be out of there a good two hours before that.  Again, this is partly our fault.
  6. LOCAL GOVERNMENT AGENCIES DON’T MAINTAIN MASSIVE FLEETS OF SNOW REMOVAL EQUIPMENT AND DON’T USE SALT ON METRO AREA ROADS SINCE WE RARELY GET BIG STORMS.  Again, regardless of the reasoning, these are just choices we have made.  Would we double the size of the plow fleet in the area for an event that happens only once every 5 years?  I doubt most of us would think it’s worth the cost.  As for salting roads, it was sure interesting visiting a local mall parking lot and two other establishments this evening…wet parking areas.  As soon as I hit city streets again it was a sheet of ice.  Obviously they are using something different at private businesses.  Seattle also didn’t use salt…until a mayor lost re-election after a big snowstorm fiasco up there in 2008.   They now use it during major storms only…seems like that could be a reasonable environmental compromise?  You can discuss that below.

There you go…my thoughts on the 1-3″ snowstorm that brought us the worst commute ever in Portland.  Feel free to comment, but if you are new to the blog your comment won’t show up until I let it pass through.

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen

139 Responses to The Worst Commute Ever: What Went Wrong Last Night In Portland

  1. W7ENK says:

    Several comments in here about getting people to use mass transit. Let me clue you folks in here for a minute…

    I commute via TriMet every single day, except when I ride my bike (which takes half the time) during the nicer, drier months. I can attest, using mass transit in this area during inclement weather is the absolute worst. It’s a complete nightmare! TriMet consistently f’ked up so badly that three days last week, I would have made it to work faster had I actually walked the 8-1/2 miles from my house to downtown. The aggravating surplus of “phantom” buses (multiple consecutive buses that say they’re coming, but mysteriously drop off the schedule just minutes before they’re set to arrive), missed connections that quite literally seemed deliberate — one I know for a fact was, and unannounced changes to routes (I’m not talking snow routes) that left folks having to walk a mile or more to their intended transfers or destinations, right in the core of downtown. But it was TriMet’s overwhelming lack of communication that was just down right appalling. They wouldn’t officially send notification of issues like canceled bus lines, route changes, delays, anything until hours after the fact, if at all. Friday morning, after struggling for 4-1/2 hours getting to work via bus/train, TriMet’s email indicating problems with my bus line didn’t arrive in my inbox until I’d already been at work for 30 minutes… 3 hours late.

    Mass transit is NOT the magical, save all solution. In this city, it’s an absolute disaster!

  2. You may not want to imply anything political but I’m more than happy to. We haven’t increased freeway capacity because we as taxpayers have been ignored by the City, County, and Metro while they indulge their progressive Utopian fantasies vis a vis light rail, when if all those billions had been spent on a little more freeway capacity, these daily traffic jams would be mitigated to a large degree. Our trademark mantra should be changed to “Keep Portland Arrogant.” It’s plainly obvious when measuring MAX ridership against freeway volume that the people working here, living here, and paying the bills here, would rather have expanded freeway capacity; and just like at the national level, our local govt. representatives routinely ignore the peons and the unwashed masses because they don’t fear us — because we keep reelecting the same morons every election cycle. To that extent “we” are GREATLY at fault for this debacle.

  3. JAIME ROBERTSON says:

    Good post, mark!

  4. flurball says:

    NWS discussion has covered everything except SPF numbers

  5. Daryl Oberacker says:

    After working at Crater Lake National Park for Four Winters I can say, Give Mark a break. We were forcast for 9-12 inches one day and it snowed almost 40 inches in one 8 hour shift. It’s a FORCAST! Not Gospel. Mother nature is in control, not us. I also listened to Marks EXACT words. Leave at lunch, and you’ll be fine. I commute from South Salem to Downtown daily. Roads were fine! My neighbor left Portland at 3pm and arrived at midnight. Mark’s forcast wasn’t the issue. 115 people per day moving here on roads that were built long ago for HALF our population is the problem. My humble opinion.

  6. Alan S Shole says:

    Jake in Gresham… you really need to step away from the computer and come up from mom and dads basement….

  7. Scooter says:

    Actually we have too many roads and freeways carving up the land. What a rational society would demand would be more mass transit, denser housing near shops and work…. and dare I say less babies and a cap on runaway population growth.

    • marinersfan85 says:

      Pfffffttttt

    • Jake-(Gresham) says:

      Hardly agree, by 2019 we will have (globally) more people 60+ years of age than those who are 6 years of age and under.

      I can say I’ve heard this stigma so many times to ‘cap’ the population growth. Ridiculous.

      There is no way that’s a good thing. Any population of species (be it elephant or insect) is vulnerable to disease and then extinction when this occurs. We are reaching that threshold (i.e. do we flip mars into ‘like’ earth or do we flop into our graves).

      We are incredibly vulnerable with our current position and mindset. Easily could lose billions from something like:

      1). The Spanish flu if such a virus were to arise again (killed more people than WWI around the same time). With commercial planes such a virus could be all over the earth in a week.

      2). An asteroid (no defense what-so-ever). Not one Government has any form of plan. All our nukes are on earth pointed at each other. Dinosaurs lived on earth globally and were around for about 175 million years. Not one species is still alive.

      3). Climate change. Venus is a planet where climate change got out of hand. In 50 years if we stay at current levels of policy and consumption climate change will be irreversible.

      4). It takes 325 sets of hands to make a single iPad. Space ships and space stations for and to mars. Far more complicated.

    • Jake-(Gresham) says:

      Typos: The elephant and insects are not individual species. You guys know what I mean.

    • Dave Brown says:

      Always amazes me how those who made it into the world are now the self proclaimed anointed ones to tell the rest of us how to live our lives. To this I say: You first!

    • Dave Brown says:

      My comment was addressed to Scooter…

  8. JJ78259 says:

    Went from a beautiful 80 degrees Saturday to 30 degrees this morning as the polar express moved thru San Antonio! Should be cool next few days till we get to Paradise Island on the Bahamas Thursday 85 degrees! Back in Weather Dan Weather for a Week.

  9. WEATHERDAN says:

    33 this afternoon. 16 this morning. Still 3 inches of snow on the ground. Peace.

    • WEATHERDAN says:

      30 today after a low of 25. Still 3 inches of snow left. Maybe more snow next weekend. Peace and Merry Christmas to all.

    • JohnD says:

      I enjoy your comments Dan. We drove to Albany today to visit some elderly friends there. The scenery was great–especially around Salem–amid below freezing, low clouds, frosted trees and lots of snow still around. Spectacular and a real treat–especially around the holidays! No doubt one of those years with an overall pattern conducive to recurrences!

    • Mike says:

      Denser housing? Even though I couldn’t live like that I must be thankful for those that choose to do so keeping the country farms and lands more desirable.

  10. Paul D says:

    Here we go again….. everything’s covered in white again in Hillsboro….

    • Jake-(Gresham) says:

      Hmmmm interesting, the flurries here have largely done nothing in East county. Clear roads up the hill out of downtown Troutdale (that steep hill) and I-84 back home. All major roads are clear and even entirely dry for the most part.

    • marinersfan85 says:

      A snow shower moved through Newberg around 9 last night that was heavy enough to coat everything and cover up most streets.

  11. A few flurries up this way today but nothing capable of causing any travel impact. Purely “conversational snow” as Mark calls it. Clearing off just in time for sunset, so looks like another cold night, though probably milder than the last one. Low of 22 here this morning.

  12. Longview 400 ft says:

    Currently 32.4
    High so far today 33.4
    Overnight low 21.2

    Very light tiny snow flurries off and on throughout the afternoon.

  13. Sapo says:

    Hmm…6z and 12z GFS as well as the 12z GEM seem to indicate we could start off as snow Monday morning. 850s are cold enough, 925 temps are just around freezing, surface temps right around freezing too. We’ll see, it doesn’t seem likely but with latest runs hinting at it there is the possibility.

    I’m guessing upper air temps will be a tad too warm and we’ll end up with 33 degree rain, but there is a chance!

  14. Diana F. says:

    Gotta love snow flakes that stick.

    East Vancouver, 300 ft, 29 degrees.

    I really hope that all this amazing FALL weather is indicative of our WINTER weather for 2017!!

    #FellowWeatherGeeks

    • I’m inclined to think this is going to be the coldest period of the season, despite not officially winter. But we shall see. We’re only a little more than halfway through December, so lots more time left in the potential window for arctic blasts.

    • Sadly….don’t let the official calendar fool you.

      Our winter season is just about 1/2 over by January 1.

  15. Anonymous says:

    We’re extreme south Mult Co, near Milwaukie, and have increasing snow now. Really just wanted to pop in and thank Mark for all the years he’s done such a great job here – I’ve found he’s the very best, most reliable forecaster and so glad he’s a weather geek! 🙂

  16. GTS1K' says:

    Light snow last 20 min. or so – 26.6

    • Ash Qelon says:

      9:00AM, Gateway/Mall 205 area, light snow , medium size flakes. Near 28 degrees.
      Haven’t been on streets that were slush from traffic.
      I’m sure they are ice mostly still.

  17. Jake-(Gresham) says:

    Started as flurries about half hour ago. Now snowing here in Gresham near Nadaka Nature Park. Medium fluffy flakes.

  18. Alohabb says:

    Well it’s lightly snowing and my streets are almost all white now in aloha.

  19. EY (Oak Grove) says:

    Snow flurries appearing in Oak Grove.

  20. Jason Hougak says:

    Getting snow flakes starting to fall here. Low got down to 16 but climbed to 24 when the clouds rolled in.
    Dropped back down to 22.

  21. One thing not brought up tonight is the fact that there is no bitterly cold air out there tonight. What happened? As of 3:48 am it is only 28 degrees in Beaverton/Aloha. Far from the 16 degrees forcasted. This should and most likely will effect the high temps for tomorrow since we are not starting at such a low temp.

  22. Bragi1 says:

    I think there is a big factor that is being overlooked here. The previous snow event had an abundance of news coverage prior to the event, everyone stayed home, and it turned out not to be as big as was implied by the coverage. This lulled most people in to false sense of thinking that subsequent weather events would be heightened for viewership numbers. If the sequence had been reversed I don’t think we would have been in the same situation. I think this event had more to do with human psychology then the accuracy of the forecasts.

  23. IceCold says:

    Mark, you did an amazing job in both forecasting the weather and warning everyone on what was to come. If people are upset they need to be upset at themselves or others who ignored your recommendations. This is why I always listen to you, and I tell all my family and friends to listen to your weather expertise. It’s nice having someone who knows the northwest as well as you do because you have been here most of your life. Thank you for not getting caught up in the hype, but always tell it like it is (even if it does mean we will not get any snow:( You can always be counted on to tell everyone what is going to happen, so thank you! Thanks for being the best around!

  24. Brandi says:

    I agree with all six statements. All of that is what went wrong. The weather actually had nothing to do with it at that point. It’s Portland’s freeway infrastructure mostly to blame. I get jammed no matter the time or day.
    But major schools were to blame as well. My children’s school bus went sideways into a ditch on SW Miner, and not only did I have to search around the neighborhood for my children 45 minutes past their bus stop time, but I had to drive all the other scared, crying children on that bus home in a car that shouldn’t have been out on the roads – with 3-6 days of potential snow/rain, most of us don’t bother with chains/studs (but we’re wrong there too). Growing up in a town with lots of snow, all buses had chains, even if there was only an inch of snow on the road. The SW Portland school buses should have them if snow is even in the forecast!! We have 50% grade hills in some SW areas.
    I also think companies are to blame for keeping employees longer than they should have, thus forcing everyone to enter freeway systems at once. Most companies should have the same ‘leave’ schedule as schools. Those who stay should at least be those with studs or chains, and worthy of overtime.

  25. Jessica Harper says:

    Last week’s snowapocalypse 2016 was a big joke to the city, I left at a reasonable time and got home at a reasonable time, that was due to the stress put on the community by local media to stay in your homes…. well nothing ended up happening… then flash foward to 12/14..I left when I saw snow in the air just as I had done the week before.. but all I heard on the news all week was there would be no major inpact to roads untill the evening commute so leave early, where as the week before the community laughed as everyone stayed home and the snow never really played out how we all thought it would… there was back lash on social media for schools closing early… well seems like no one took it seriously till it was too late… I left work in Gresham at 230pm took me 8 hrs in traffic… to get to molalla, mostly at a standstill in oregon city (5 hrs on 213) between Beavercreek and henrici… the local law agency’s were no where to be found. I saw one cop on 205 and no one directing traffic on 213, semi trucks were stopped in the middle of beaver creek to chain up while everyone waited becasue the roads were blocked. Even my commute this morning was terrible, no deicer was used down 213 as of 630 am today it was a solid sheet of ice. Like they plowed it once on 12/14 and called it good. My kids were displaced, relying on other parents to take them in and care for them as the daycare closed, and in the event that a major disaster hits oregon this really made me think how would I get to them when it matters the most… hopefully the city of portland, clackamas county and countless other local, and state agencies take that thought into consideration when improving our ablity to effectively move around the metro and outlying areas in this type if situation that will certainly happen again. I appreciate your blog, just wanted to add amother perspective…

    • AlexQS says:

      Yeah, that 213 was something else! We left work at the same time, but I started from Milwaukie, so I bet I was going through OC an hour before you got there. I spent only 1 hour from CCC to Henrici. Once I made that turn, everything on Beavercreek, and back up Leeland was open snowy road. I was in Molalla before 5:00

      On the other side, 213 and Leland, no one was coming up the hill on 213. It makes me think that drivers didn’t have the sense to go down and up the hill one at a time to make sure they didn’t lose momentum. The valley at the bottom is narrow and there is no flat place to back-up and try again. If you get stuck at the bottom, you’re just stuck! Both ways out are uphill. It would take only 2 cars stuck at the bottom to block the whole road for hours.

      Did you turn at Henrici, or wait through 213?

    • Jessica Harper says:

      I stuck it out, didn’t abandon my car and I drive a corolla s. So I wasn’t losing controll, just kept it in low and stayed off the breaks. Made it to molalla about 10pm. Beavercreek, henrici and leland were outta the equation for me I made my commitment and saw it all the way throught…

    • Scooter says:

      I was out between 6 and 7 PM near Barton Park and the County gravel pit where all there plows and sanders are stationed. When I pulled in to check, the place was deserted and not one track coming out of the Clackamas County Shops. Where were they?

  26. Gregory Carich says:

    The picture on the front page of The Oregonian 12/16/16 is worth a thousand words. No parka, no tuque, no gloves, jeans (denim-“cotton kills”), a hammer “to chip away ice” from Kyle Prindel’s rig’ windshield!

    “Hubris and timing bad combo for storm” screams the headline.

    No. Headline should read something like this: “Winter punishes the foolish and lazy”

    A hammer…couldn’t get an ice scraper!

    Must be Global Warming…”Unstoppable”…

  27. Hali Mendez says:

    I agree on all points, Mark. I followed your forecast closely and determined to leave work no later than 1 pm to head home to Troutdale. I made it home in 25 minutes with light snow just starting to blow across 84; it was a trouble free commute. As far as using salt goes, I agree that it should be used during snow storms only; a snow storm in the Portland metro area is rare and I see more benefit than problem using salt that infrequently. As far as the schools fiasco is concerned, all of the forecasts I viewed were fairly aligned; the excuse that the snow arrived sooner than expected was simply inaccurate for anyone paying attention. The schools just made a bad decision; hopefully they will do a better job next time. Love your blog!

  28. MasterNate says:

    Down to 20 out all ready. BRRRRRR!! DP at 14. Going to be cold. Outside Molalla and Canby.

  29. muxpux (Longview) says:

    So the last snow we had, I was very vocal to my bosses that we were getting snow, and I was concerned not about making it to work, but getting home. Working swing shift, all the “big bosses” didn’t even think about nightshift until it actually started snowing. I did get a call to stay home, around the time my road was getting bad and I was supposed to be leaving. I happened to take this wed-thurs-fri off but a coworker told me Wednesday the nightshift got sent home around 6:30. 2:30 is shift change. It’s hard to convey to employers that, yes, I can make it to work, and yes there isn’t going to be much, but between timing, type of snowfall, and progression of the system, sometimes it’s best to play it safe.

    The first snow last week fell on very cold ground. (It was 23 degrees here before it started snowing) this led to a fine surface to drive on for a bit as the snow swirled around and didn’t really “stick”. as it stuck and got compacted on the busier roads, it was still ok to drive on. Compact dry snow is a very drive able surface. But this last snow, at least where I am, it was warm in the am, around 35 or so when it started snowing. It didn’t immediately stick which led to wet roads. As the sun went down, right about rush hour as the temp starts dropping, the wet roads start to freeze and become snow covered. Then you end up with a mix of wet slush, ice, and packed snow, that makes driving impossible. Mix that with everyone hitting the road at the same time and boom.

    • I oversee about 90 employees at my job. I started communicating to my team about the potential of this weeks event on Monday. We prepared pretty well and had very few call outs. Oddly now several of the weekend shift people are trying to call out because of the “conditions.”

  30. Normally I’d agree with Mark’s argument that expectations of exact forecasts are “partly the network’s fault.”

    HOWEVER…Mark was very vocal on Tuesday evening, that a HALF DAY for work and school Wednesday was probably the wisest approach. In so doing, he was accounting for a little bit of the uncertainty in snow timing. Leaving work or school by noon would guarantee that at worst, you might see a few flakes on your way home.

    But instead, schools and employers just tried to tough it out – and look where their hard-nosed hubris got them.

    In spite of the congested freeways and people driving the wrong kind of cars…if everyone had just gone home at noon, none of this drama would have happened!

    So exactly opposite of December 2009….I don’t think the networks screwed up at all on this one. If anything, Mark deserves due credit for his clever insight, this time around. It’s the school administrators and workplace managers who need a caustic reprimand.

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