Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Weather nightmares

I guess this winter storm qualifies as a weather nightmare, as it woke me up in the middle of the night. Wind howling, metal vent for the upstairs shower fan rattling, and the whole upstairs shaking. The view out the kitchen door is weird — gigantic bright white clouds looming in the east, moving slowing southward, and one star visible above a neighbor's fir tree.

The heater kicked in around 3 a.m. — something that almost never happens, as the house retains heat well and I set the thermostat to 62 at night.

Last night I spent two hours driving four miles to pick Tom up from work at Westlake and Denny. While most of the drivers on the city streets knew to go slow (10 miles an hour) there were enough people trying to whip around at 20 that when they hit their brakes they went out of control, spun, and slid off the street. I was astonished by a bicyclist who rode onto Leary Way, a few yards in front of my car. I braked slowly, then applied my horn. He was astonished to realize that I couldn't just slam on the brakes for him -- and that he couldn't just speed up on the sheer ice. When I crossed the Fremont Bridge and got on to Westlake, traffic was going less than 1 mile an hour. For entertainment, we had pedestrians darting across the street in front of our cars, several of whom promptly fell flat on their backs on the ice, in front of oncoming traffic in the opposite lane, causing those cars to slam on their brakes, fishtail, and go up onto the sidewalks (if they were lucky) or into other vehicles (if they weren't). Fortunately, no one hit the pedestrians.

I'm supposed chair a board meeting downtown tomorrow night, and trying decide what do about that. One weather site says the sun will come out tomorrow, all the ice will melt, and road conditions will be back to normal by evening — albeit about 12 degrees. But I find that hard to believe. I need to decide in the morning whether to cancel the meeting, or try to hold it online or by phone.

The situation here is incomprehensible to folks from back East, where a city crews would have strewn the streets with sand and salt hours ago, and it would have been a normal, if gritty, commute. But in a city where snow and icy conditions occur only once or twice a year, buying a large enough fleet of sand trucks, maintaining a network of sand and salt supply yards, and keeping this system on standby would be too great an expense.

I hope everyone has the sense to stay safely at home tomorrow. In weather like this, I always think of my insane employer from 15 years ago. In the far, dark, past, the company had been involved in city emergency services, and it had required all employees to report for work, even in severe storm conditions. By the time I joined the company, it was primarily an insurance firm, and the vast majority of employees were clerical staff who worked in administrative buildings. Yet the company still required all employees to attend work during storms, and to arrive within one hour of their usual start time — or else the day was counted as an unexcused absence and charged to their vacation time. Of course, by this time the company had employees who lived as far away as Tacoma and Issaquah, for whom a storm commute would require leaving home at four a.m. or earlier.

As the editor of the employee newsletter, I had been told to "explain" this policy to employees, an assignment I found...difficult. When I challenged the HR representative who wanted the policy explained, I asked how single mothers with toddlers who lived in distant suburbs were supposed to make this commute at 4 a.m. when the day care center was closed because of snow and Metro bus service was cancelled. His sneering answer: "Well, these people should have thought of that before they stopped using birth control."

I still think of this jerk during severe winter storms. He lives, childless, in a condo in the city and is probably one of those pedestrians darting out in front of cars.

Please drive carefully anyway.

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