Spokane Residents Cope With Record Snow

More than 6 feet of snow in the past three weeks has left Spokane residents frustrated. Tempers are so frayed that a man was arrested for shooting at a snow plow operator.

This unusually harsh winter has disrupted schools, traffic, garbage pickup and mail service in the city of 200,000.

Roofs are collapsing, streets are clogged with ice and slush and locals are starting to refer to this as Sno-maggedon.

Even visitors are impressed.

“This is the most snow I’ve ever seen,” Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt said when her team played at Gonzaga University on Dec. 30. “It’s beautiful.”

Parents were thinking otherwise on Jan. 7, 2009, as icy roads and pools of melting snow snarled the morning commute and prompted Spokane schools to again close, giving 29,000 students a second unscheduled day off this week.

“Its an ice rink out there,” school spokeswoman Terran Roloff said.

Heavy rain and temperatures in the mid-40s caused the National Weather Service to issue a flood warning in the Spokane area.

Mudslides partially blocked three roads south of Spokane: U.S. Highway 272 just west of Palouse, Highway 26 three miles west of Colfax and Highway 194 near Almota. Highway 27 along the Idaho border was reduced to one lane due to snow.

Spokane has received more than 78 inches of snow — about the height of Michael Jordan — since mid-December. That’s far above its average of less than 50 inches for an entire winter. Normally about 16 inches would have fallen at this point.

The local record for an entire winter is 93.5 inches set in 1949-50. That is likely to be shattered soon.

As many as 200 members of the Washington National Guard were being dispatched to the Spokane area to help with snow removal Wednesday, particularly on school rooftops, Laura Lockard, a spokeswoman for Gov. Chris Gregoire, said Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009.

Snow rage is getting to some.

One man was arrested by Spokane police after gunshots were fired Monday morning at a private snow plow operator who was clearing a parking lot. Police said the motorist apparently got upset when the plow operator honked his horn.

“It’s safe to say that fuses are short, people are frustrated and we are having an increase in neighborhood disputes regarding snow-related issues,” said Jennifer DeRuwe, a police spokeswoman.

Hot lines at Spokane Mental Health are getting twice the number of calls from people seeking help, said Staci Cornwell of the agency. Some are from elderly people who need help picking up medications, or with shoveling. Other callers are just agitated.

“In our community, people are getting upset, angry, stressed out because of all this snow,” Cornwell said. “There’s a pending fear of what else is to come.”

Jeff Hastings, a mental health counselor, said people’s emotional reserves are becoming drained.

“Then people get angry and irritable and depressed and feel anxiety,” Hastings said. “They feel overwhelmed.”

Treacherous roads are a major complaint. Many are covered with ice, heavily rutted and reduced to one lane by piles of plowed snow.

Mayor Mary Verner said the city is spending an estimated $150,000 a day to operate plows around the clock.

Downtown, snow has been piled in the middle of streets in hills that are taller than adults and give the impression of driving in giant slots.

Driving conditions are so bad that most of the region’s malls closed early the weekend before Christmas because employees and customers could not reach them. Employers continued to have problems on Jan. 6, especially big box stores with flat roofs. Several checked by The Associated Press were closed on that day.

The winter break for schoolchildren started two days early, on Dec. 17, because of snow, and school had been scheduled to resume on Monday before Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich –pointing to a “once in a lifetime winter” — took the unprecedented step of recommending schools remain closed because children could not travel safely.

To the relief of parents, classes did resume on on Jan. 6, creating gridlock on the streets as school buses, private vehicles and walkers competed for space on roads because sidewalks remain buried.

Weight on roofs is a major problem. The National Weather Service has estimated that the existing snow is placing a load of about 25 pounds per square foot roof on roofs designed to hold 30 to 40 pounds. Rain forecast to follow the snow this week will add significant new weight, the agency said.

That has created a brisk market for day laborers willing to go up on roofs and shovel snow off for at least $15 per hour.

Rising temperatures were already melting snow and creating rivers of water, promising some relief.

“I’m sick of it and ready for it to melt,” said Joe Olney, 19, a store clerk.

But two women who work at the Chocolate Apothecary in downtown Spokane have found a coping mechanism.

“We are surrounded by chocolate,” said owner Susan Davis. “It’s all good in here.”