Winter blues

…sure beats the winter greys!

lakeunion

No one REALLY enjoys constant rain, so it’s easy to believe Seasonal Affective Disorder is something we’ve all invented in our minds. But when the sun comes out in February, like it has today, I feel a huge sense of possibility and empowerment. I start getting excited about all the projects I started enthusiastically last summer but have since let fall by the wayside. If this great weather sticks around or at least shows itself a little more often, I have a feeling I’ll finally plant those indoor herb jars, seek out a collapsible, Farmer’s Market-friendly basket for my bike, and pay more visits to local parks with good walking trails.

Snow

When snow is forecast in Seattle, everybody steels themselves for what’s to come. The kind of snowfall that other major cities expect–nay, scoff at–is enough to turn this entire city upside down. Seattle’s total transformation only after a couple inches of snow accumulation is partly because snow and ice make for treacherous walks, drives and bus rides up and down its steep hills, and partly because we can’t justify the cost of studded tires or salted roads round the clock.

So when it snows in Seatown, you can expect a lot of rogue behavior on the roads. Pedestrians opt to simply wait until the roads are clear to cross rather than to press buttons at crosswalks; lane dividers on major highways cease to exist; cars don’t stop at intersections unless it’s an overt safety hazard not to; and buses seldom take passengers exactly where they want to go.

(Don’t believe me? This morning I tried to follow the rules at a crosswalk, pushing the button and waiting patiently. A driver nearby leaned out his window and shouted, “Don’t you think we’ve moved past formalities by now?”)

Snow

Things went surprisingly smoothly earlier in the week, when everybody in the city knew exactly when and where to watch for snow. Everyone ran errands early, left work at the appropriate time, and settled in for the long haul at home. The roads were a mess, as usual, but most people seemed to stay safe.

But in the last 24 hours, when the flakes were expected to turn to light nighttime showers and daytime rain–when the snow was, in fact, expected to wash away–we got the opposite. The flakes fell more persistently than ever, and our white blanket grew thicker. School districts gave up for the remainder of the week, local shops stayed shuttered, and almost no one dared to drive.

I thought this would be a tame one-day snow event, nothing too crazy. But as evidenced by tonight’s Twitter posts, which tell of icy commutes, mass power outages and tree-splintered carports, there’s plenty of crazy to go around…


Snowmageddon

“You tell people they might see snowflakes out their windows tomorrow morning and then nothing happens…but you give no forecast at all and then I-5 is a skating rink.”

Ah, the weather reporting catch-22–as neatly summed up by a Seattle Times editor.

Today all the editors (I sat meekly in a corner and took notes) met to discuss how they’d handle the next “snowmageddon,” the nickname for 2008’s Northwest snowstorm, or other natural disaster. Among the questions on the table: Do we call in the troops at 3 a.m.? Do we let everyone work from home and post pictures and blog items to show how hard their neighborhoods were hit? Do we use bit.ly bundles so readers can be informed and prepared before The Big Storm hits? Should the information be prominent on the homepage, or does it deserve only a tiny square of seattletimes.com real estate?

At the root of all these ideas were two questions whose answers were more complex than just a “yes” or “no”: What exactly do locals want or need to know in the event of a major snowstorm? And do we have the resources, capacity and desire to give those locals exactly what they want?

Here’s the answer to the first question. Readers, they concluded, read the paper’s weather stories every morning not to marvel at meteorological miracles but to see how the weather will affect them personally. That’s why, if the city wakes up to a snowstorm, the most important information to disseminate immediately is road conditions, school closures and information on anyone who was hurt. People need to know how (and whether) they’ll be able to get to work, whether their kids need to be dropped off on the way, and whether everyone they know and love is safe.

Here’s the answer to the second question: no.

If everyone is most concerned about how the weather will affect them, they’ll probably be eager to know when a snow plow will visit their street, whether it’s safe for two-wheel-drive cars to drive in the neighborhood, whether the local convenience store is open, which day their youngest child’s daycare will be up and running again and whether church/bridge club/rehearsal/24 Hour Fitness will go on as it always has.

People have a lot of questions. For news agencies to answer all of them, they’d have to have an unlimited budget and an endless supply of reporters working around the clock. But let’s face it: not even The New York Times could–or would, for that matter, even if they could–supply all the above information.

However, it’s fascinating how much information we can provide in a short amount of time.

Among other things, Times editors want to tell people how many inches of snowfall their neighborhood has seen in comparison with other neighborhoods in the city; which major roads in their neighborhoods are open or closed; which school districts have announced snow days; and what the weather looks like later that day and beyond.

Someday, they also want everyone on staff to post pictures of the weather scenes near their respective places of residence and map the pictures in an interactive graphic. They’re also mulling posting reader-submitted photos in the same package, à la The Washington Post during its own snowpocalypse.

As for the catch-22, The Times has decided to err on the side of caution, informing people of any and all possible turns the weather could take on its brand new blog, The Weather Beat. So far I’m the blog’s sole contributor, but come snowmageddon season, I’m sure the entire staff will pitch in.