Record snowfall delights, frustrates islanders

The weather brought power outages, transportation challenges and school cancellations.

Like thousands of people in this region, islanders are contending with record-breaking snow that brought beauty and fun as well as power outages, transportation challenges and multiple school cancellations.

Snow first fell last week, creating school snow days early in the week, but then it came back Friday, with several winters’ worth of snow falling all at once. By Saturday morning, islanders at the north end measured 9 inches of snow, while people on higher elevations reported a foot or more. They also found themselves without power, as it went out shortly before 3 a.m. island-wide on Saturday.

For the first time ever, King County enacted its Emergency Snow Network, shrinking its bus routes and fleet to provide core service, canceling service on Vashon and on multiple other routes throughout the county. Snow returned both Sunday and Monday, bringing more school closures and more power outages, shortly after some of the last people from Friday’s snow had had their power restored. In all, some islanders measured more than 20 inches of snow by the time the last flakes fell. Many islanders made the most of it; Ace temporarily ran out of sleds; some people took to their cross-country skis on the roads, and others entered their backyard creations in an online snow and ice sculpture contest — with the winner decided after press time.

Scenes from the snow. Photo credits, clockwise from top left: Jake Conroy, Puget Sound Energy, Dani Bingham, Kent Phelan, Sarah Kassik and Paul Rowley.

Scenes from the snow. Photo credits, clockwise from top left: Jake Conroy, Puget Sound Energy, Dani Bingham, Kent Phelan, Sarah Kassik and Paul Rowley.

Rick Wallace, who heads Vashon’s Emergency Operations Center team and has been involved in Vashon’s preparedness efforts for years, was active before and during the several-day event, providing storm-related information. On Monday, with snow again falling, he indicated that the recent days had important lessons for islanders.

“I believe this was a compelling signal that you really need to be able to take care of yourself,” he said.

In private conversations and public social media pages, some islanders had asked when they might be plowed out. The answer for many people, Wallace said, is never. In fact, the King County Roads’ website states they are able to plow only 15 percent of the county’s roads.

On Monday, King County Roads Director Rick Brater said that several years ago, because of funding problems, King County Roads cut its workforce by 40 percent and determined what roads it would maintain and provide snow removal for. The focus was on major and minor arterials, he said, just 200 miles out of the county’s 1,500 miles of roads.

“Unfortunately, it is true throughout the county that if you live off the main roads, you will not see much, if any, services,” he said.

David Hoffmann, an islander who is part of the King County Roads crew, said over the weekend that he and other crew members were working hard, in 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, while the weather was bad.

Their first priority in a storm, he said, is to make sure the main highway is clear. Most of the time, the island has one plow, and if it is snowing hard enough, they focus only on Vashon Highway, but try to expand to as many other roads as possible, focusing on those most traveled. In addition to plowing, the roads crews work with Puget Sound Energy and tend to fallen trees blocking roads. The first day of the most recent storm, Hoffmann said, there were a half a dozen trees on the main highway alone, and they cleaned up several more after that, including four or five on Cedarhurst on Sunday.

“Not everybody sees us on the road, but we are out there,” he said.

Scenes from the snow. Photo credits, clockwise from top left: Jim Diers, Jim Diers, Trevi Ellen, Jim Diers, Georgia Galus and and Lyndsey Braun-Palmer.

Scenes from the snow. Photo credits, clockwise from top left: Jim Diers, Jim Diers, Trevi Ellen, Jim Diers, Georgia Galus and and Lyndsey Braun-Palmer.

The condition of the island’s roads is a prime concern for the school district. Superintendent Slade McSheehy said he makes the decision to delay or close the schools by following weather models closely, staying in touch with superintendents of nearby school districts and communicating with a handful of district officials who live in different parts of the island. Last week students were out on snow cancellations on Monday and Tuesday, a late arrival on Wednesday and an early release on Friday. McSheehy cancelled school for Monday and Tuesday of this week as well, and beyond that, as of Monday, students’ return to school was not clear.

“I would love to get kids in on a late start on Wednesday, but honestly that is a lot of snow to melt,” he said. “It could be Thursday.”

He expects that one snow day will be made up on March 8, which had been slated as an in-service day. There is some question about if the days this week will need to be made up, as Gov. Jay Inslee declared a snow emergency. McSheehy said he expects to release information about makeup days within a few weeks.

Signs that substantial snow was coming were evident in the island grocery stores beginning late last week.

At Thriftway, several shelves were empty at times, and the lines were long. Last Thursday, those waiting to check out threaded up the distant beer aisle. Manager Tim Marsh said he spent that day “directing traffic” in the store. People were in good spirits, he said, but the by day’s end, the shelves were bare.

“The store was hit the hardest I have ever seen it, and I have been here for 28 years,” he said.

The store closed early on Friday and Saturday nights, he said, and on late Monday afternoon, he was making plans to close the store early again. Employees with four-wheel drive vehicles were transporting co-workers to and from work, or many could not have gotten there.

Wallace, who has been part of the team of people telling islanders to get prepared for emergencies and disasters for years by stockpiling supplies, said he was glad to see the long lines in advance of the storm.

“I loved it that people did that,” he said. “It showed that they were getting ready and taking care of themselves. They would be safer and more comfortable that way. That said, there will be no warning when the earthquake comes.”

At the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank, Executive Director Robbie Rohr said that the organization took steps, with the help of island volunteers, to make sure people who needed it had access to food. It was difficult to get to their warehouse at Sunrise Ridge, she said, and they put out a call for volunteers with vehicles that could make it there. Several people responded, she said, both old and new volunteers, and assisted with getting deliveries to homebound people, taking emergency bags of food to the Eagles and the Burton store, and moving supplies for general distribution this week to the parking lot of the Methodist church. There, the food bank will give out food between 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday.

Now, the food bank is in need of some more protein staples, such as canned chicken and tuna, as well as crackers and paper bags, Rohr said. Donations can be dropped off during the distribution hours at the church this week or to the food bank’s bin at Thriftway.

Rohr also noted the long lines at the grocery stores. While those with a comfortable financial cushion can stock up on both necesessities and treats to weather a storm, that is not an option for everyone.

“Many people at home are stretched to have the basics,” she said.

As the paper went to press on Tuesday, the snow had turned to rain, and slippery slush was abundant. More than 750 island housesholds were again without power, and some were recovering from having spent more than 50 hours without it.

Wallace said that last Saturday, when the power outage affected everyone, he and the chiefs at Vashon Island Fire & Rescue talked about opening a daytime warming center, but early on received word that the island-wide outage was expected to be resolved fairly quickly and did not move forward with that idea. He said the hardest part of opening a warming center is not obtaining the building or the generator, but the staff to run it.

“It takes skill and training for a warming center that we would set up,” he said. “It is not something you can do at the last minute.”

To that end, he said VashonBePrepared is actively looking for people to be trained to assist with for a variety of sheltering options. People interested should email

Between Friday and 9 a.m. Tuesday, the fire department responded to 48 calls, according to Assistant Chief Bob Larsen. He said the snow made responding challenging, but there were no severe storm-related problems, such as car accidents or fires.

In all, Wallace said, he is pleased with how things went on the island overall, noting that the situation would have been far worse had the weather been an ice or windstorm.

“The series of storms was troubling, but not a disaster,” he said. “It was not as bad as I was worried it would be.”