In December, Portland received its annual allowance of (what it considers Arctic) winter weather. Portland, the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. state of Oregon, is a hilly city with a very wet climate. For seven months each year, it will rain more days than not. Eastern Oregon is much drier, owing to the Cascade Range’s tendency to absorb most of the eastward moving moisture much of the time.
As Portland reckons things, the annual allowance of (what Kansans would call ‘early December’ and Alaskans would call ‘breakup’) winter weather includes only one session. Once there has been a Winter Episode, no further allowances of (what southern Californians would call ‘the end of all things’) winter weather are tolerated.
Now and then, and in spite of this being one of the more prominent centers of divine feminine worship in various pagan forms, Ma Nature omits Portland’s wishes from Her plans. This year, She did not consult Portland at all. A second winter weather system (what Wyomingites would call ‘May’) moved into the area, dropping temperatures into the teens ºF. In our case, seven inches of snow fell and stuck. Portland limped along for over a week with freezing rain, roads icing up, appointments canceled, mass transit slowed and rerouted, icemelt and snow shovels unavailable, trash uncollected, mail undelivered (that old line about rain and snow is not true) and other expressions of urban chaos.
In short, they have acted about like Los Angeles when the temps drop into the fifties. I won’t justify it, because some of the problem is caused by people’s dumbness, but it’s not all Portland’s fault. Why do seven inches of snow and several days of freezing temperatures lay Portland out flat on its dime-thin-pizza-crust-with-artisanal-vegetables-eating ass?
Topography and geography. The Portland area has a lot of hills, slopes, curved roads, and so on. This is not Boise, laid out like a great big grid. This is not Wichita, where you can probably set a level on the ground and expect it to center its bubble. Even well-prepared locales with sloped terrain have a hard time in winter, and the laws of inertia do not change from, say, Edmonton to Portland. If the road curves, and its surface is slick, and you drive fast enough to overcome your traction, you will slide. Even if you are careful, Portland offers abundant opportunities to overcome your traction.
Trees. Portland has a lot of shade. Shade keeps sunlight (when we get any) from melting snow and ice. Shade is selective, though, and thus there will be stretches of clear, bare, wet or dry pavement interrupted by shady spots that do not thaw. This can sneak up on one.
Ambient moisture. In winter, the Portland area’s humidity tends to exceed 90%. I have lived in climates where that figure was often below 30% in winter. When the air is nearly saturated with water vapor, and surfaces (car exteriors, pavement, mailboxes, eave-troughs) drop below 32º Fahrenheit, water will begin to freeze from the air to those surfaces. In the middle of the cold snap, moisture inside our house was frosting up the metal frames on the insides of our windows. Southerners also experience this freezing-to-surfaces effect, which is one reason Atlanta (for example) comes as unglued as Portland when it gets cold.
Dumb drivers. In the Portland area, drivers are not so much bad as they are very abrupt in their maneuvers. We have a minority of drivers who simply refuse to get in their vehicles when it snows; probably wise. We have another minority who are well equipped for ice and snow, have experience driving in it, and who take to the roads with the respect developed from a life in cold climates. They do fine. A third minority, and rather a large and dangerous one, believes that owning a four-wheel-drive vehicle now makes them Masters of Motoring Space and Time. They are very dangerous, because 4WD is not a solution to most winter driving problems. They tailgate and bully sane drivers. They drive worse than their usual habits. They end up in a lot of ditches, fishtailing onto sidewalks and into medians, and make the work of the police much harder. They’re the worst. The rest are the second worst, because they do not understand the physics and aren’t planning to try. They are nervous, and nervous people tend to make mistakes. They get into situations they can’t get out of. They dig holes in packed snow or ice with their drive wheels, then wonder why the car doesn’t move. They pick the worst places to stop. They change lanes when a person familiar with physics would not do so. They panic. They get stuck and abandon their cars along thoroughfares, freeway shoulders, and so on. My wife and I oscillate between the first and second groups depending on our situation and need, but most of these people scare holy hell out of us.
Not designed for it. Put simply, very little in this area is designed or chosen to handle ice and snow. Roofs in Portland must be very well made to keep out rain, but are not designed expecting the weight of heavy snow. They are very prone to ice damming, which leads to homeowner damning (take my word on that). Heaters and condensate pumps get uncommon workouts in cold weather, and a number will fail the test. Ice accumulation downs power lines, transit cables, tree branches, and entire trees. Portland is designed to drain away a lot of water, but the sudden melting of several inches of snow and ice can overwhelm that drainage system–especially if part of it is still frozen. Urban flooding is a very real concern.
Salt-free diet. Oregon doesn’t like to salt roads. It will do so in certain situations, but one cannot expect the state’s transportation authorities to do so by reflex. Hardware stores in Portland don’t carry tons of snow removal supplies, and all the icemelt and snow shovels will vanish on the first day. If you don’t already have them, tough luck. Oregon will gravel roads, but the Portland area does not have enough equipment to handle them all, and it definitely lacks the snowplows to clear anything but the freeways and arterials. Everyplace else is on its own. Where I live, for example, we faced the possibility of chaining up to get out of our development; once out, we would either need to de-chain or limit our travel to roads where we could drive at chain speeds (definitely under 25 mph) without creating hazards. Had we de-chained, of course, we might have to chain up again in order to travel that last quarter mile. No one graveled our development, much less plowed snow or put down any sort of chemical, nor did any of us imagine that anyone would. No one is deliberately saying “Fuck you, deal with it.” No one is saying anything. That itself is the point. If they were to say anything, it would be “Good luck. We can’t help you.” For those from rougher climates and/or smaller towns, we tend to help ourselves rather than waiting to be saved. For those from foreign countries where it never snows, or for those purely urban persons who think food is materialized at grocery stores, it has to be frightening.
Why don’t they prepare? There is definitely more that Portland could do on a contingency basis. It would be cost-prohibitive to buy and maintain enough anti-winter infrastructure to prevent snowstorms from turning into shitstorms, but there could be more contingency planning. Since locals refuse to contemplate the physics of the matter on their own, a better job could be done with spot reduction in speed limits–and Portland/Beaverton really ought to adore that, because it would be the next great excuse to write a lot of speeding tickets. People could organize volunteer groups to shovel more driveways and sidewalks. Nah; they’d rather go on the news and bitch because the transit authority, or the city, or anyone but them did not drop all its other major concerns and shovel the snow at their light rail stop.
It’s not over when it’s over. When the roads begin to clear in earnest, Portland’s drivers unleash the chained demon within. For agonizing days they have had to restrain their desires to whip around like fighter pilots, tailgate (unless they owned 4X4s, in which case they had lots of fun tailgating smarter people than themselves), make left turns at breathtakingly selfish and stupid times, change their minds at the last minute, and tempt whatever guardian angels still bother with them. Physics have prohibited them, by fearful reason or by fender-crumpling force, from being themselves. Now it’s payback time: they have several days of Bad Driving saved up, and the universe that deprived them of this liberty is going to pay. I suppose the local municipalities, who base no small portion of their revenue streams off extractive law enforcement, rub their gnarled hands in fiduciary delight.
When it melts, it rains. Since it rains a lot here to begin with, Portland has had quite some time to devise means to deal with excess water. Topography helps and hurts: there are lots of downhills, but somewhere there’s a bottom to the hill. Ditches, storm drains, water catchment areas, and more. They do not have every problem solved, but it takes sustained heavy rain to overwhelm the drainage system. If sustained heavy rain happens when we also see five inches of snow melt off roofs and yards and places where it was plowed or shoveled into berms and heaps, the drainage system will become overwhelmed. There will be mudslides; parts of hillsides will give way. Hydroplaning becomes a greater concern than at most other times, which is bad news for the Liberated Fighter Pilots described above because they know only two settings: terrified and terrifying. No more snow and ice? That means it is now safe to do whatever.
What they see around them. You think the mail always gets through, through snow and rain and dead of night? Not here; that’s a myth. It can take a couple of weeks to catch up. They turn on the news and see hundreds of cars just abandoned on the freeways and arterials, some in spots where they will probably be wrecked in place (other people coming to that spot might fare no better even if the path were clear, which it is not). Every news anchor pleads with them to turtle up until it just goes away. At the onset, panicky people stampede to the grocery stores and go full Canadian: milk section wiped oat. It’s hooped eh, even the buttermilk and skim milk. Calm, confidence, and courage are as communicable as panic, uncertainty, and terror. Most human beings are fundamentally compliant and imitative, a dynamic which is the bedrock of civilization. Here, that means a majority will imitate freakout, as they have a bias toward obedience and imitation. It is the contagion of freakout.
Yeah, Portland could do it a lot better. Trouble is, it happens rarely enough that it becomes a bad dream. Amnesia sets in, and other problems come front and center. But if you wonder why a city can feel its knees buckle due to temps in the teens and seven inches of snow, well, there you go.