Field Notes

Portland: we're just not like other places

By around 5PM Monday things in Portland were beginning to return to normal.

The icepocalpysapalooza that had gripped the city in the icy hands of white death from the sky and threatened to keep us frozen for 1,000 years or until Aslan returned was starting to fade away.

And, as is so often the case in Portland in February, people were talking about rain.

But before we totally let go of the events of the last few days and return to focusing on what exactly it will take to build an ark as the rains return and the place becomes so wet seagulls that have been camped out miles from a real body of water get to say, I told you so, a few thoughts.

There’s been a lot of talk of, could we have done better.

For the better part of four days, the city was basically shut down. Offices were closed, businesses were closed, people were told to stay inside. There were reports that some supermarkets were running low on supplies.

It did seem that the zombie apocalypse was right around the corner.

Let’s talk about the city’s plowing of streets or lack thereof.

No one’s going to argue that it snows a lot it here. It doesn’t.  It snows a lot - and by a lot, I mean around five inches, maybe a little more - around once every five years.

And when it happens, we act like Atlanta with half an inch of snow.

What makes it funnier is that we live in the shadow of several mountains over 10,000-feet tall where there pretty much is always some snow.

Of the thousands and thousands of miles of streets in Portland, only just more than 500 got plowed. And while those streets did get plowed repeatedly, the majority of the city was ignored.

A variety of reasons have been given for that.

On Saturday, Commissioner Steve Novick, who oversees the Bureau of Transportation, actually said side streets were not plowed because that is where children play.

Now, I don’t want to come across as Scrooge but we didn’t plow streets because that’s where children play? Maybe if we had some more parks, this wouldn’t be an issue. And did they actually do census surveys to find out how many kids were on each street? And was there really no other option for children?

By Monday, the explanation had changed. It would be just too expensive to plow the side streets, some $300 million a year.

My sense is well, yes. If we were talking about plowing that much every single year. We’re not.

Regardless, at various times, the city’s solution to streets and sidewalks being covered with snow and ice was to ask people to stay inside.

This request varied from the please stay inside to an emergency alert issued Saturday night warning people not to leave their homes, public transportation had become unreliable, the sidewalks were dangerous.

All that was missing from that warning was an exhortation to find your loved ones and hold them close.

There’s also the fact that unlike many major cities, we don’t use salt on the streets – it’s not environmentally-friendly, PBOT spokespeople are quick to remind you. Maybe we should look again at the balance between that fact and the hundreds of accidents in the region over the past 72 hours.

The one thing that was consistent was that messages were often contradicted not long after they were delivered– stay inside followed by don’t forget to go out and show support for stores that were hurt by the downturn in business because you are staying inside; if you have to go out, use public transportation followed by public transportation is unreliable so just go back to staying inside.

Perhaps adding to the confusion was the unfortunate timing that had Mayor Charlie in South Africa this week.

He went for a conference on climate change and tacked on some vacation time.

His spokesman Dana Haynes says that the Mayor’s been in touch every day – “a couple dozen times,” he told me – but “the mayor is 10 hours ahead of us, and that’s been a little complicating.”

Haynes added the mayor’s been on “some but not all of the conference calls on storm response” and “a lot of phone calls drop out too but that hasn’t been a big deal.”

So, what’s it all boil down to?

There was more snow than we are used to and certainly more ice than we were ready for. Some people were upset with the response, which was pretty much it’s going to melt soon so just be patient, and others were perfectly happy to do just that.

One of my colleagues suggested Monday afternoon that, referring to Portland, “We’re just not like other places.”

It may be that it really is just that simple and we should accept it.

Or perhaps we should wonder if we could better?