Breaking News
More () »

When snow comes to Portland, why is it always like this?

Portland has a long, inglorious history of coming to a screeching halt when it gets much in the way of snow accumulation.

PORTLAND, Ore. — When snow hits Portland, it's almost predictable. Traffic grinds to a halt. Drivers get stuck on the roads for hours, sometimes without moving more than a mile or two. Many end up abandoning their cars, preferring to take their chances on foot. And the whole mess gets left behind, sometimes for days.

"You'll notice the abandoned Fed Ex truck, the school bus, several other vehicles as well," KGW's Mike Benner reported on Thursday, following the Portland metro area's unexpected snow accumulations the day before.

"What's ultimately the issue here?" said truck driver who'd been stuck on the interstate in Portland since about 12:30 a.m. "Nobody was prepared for it."

But it's far from a new problem. Similar problems and similar complaints have plagued the city for decades.

"Well I'll tell you something that's been bugging me ever since I left my house about an hour ago," one person said on KGW during a snow storm in 1969. "That's all these bald-tired daredevils on the road."

So if the problem has been around for so long, how has the local response to snow changed, if it's changed at all?

As the snow began to fall on Wednesday, word was slow to spread that this would be more than the dusting, perhaps an inch or two, that most people expected.

Around 4 p.m., The Story's Pat Dooris headed toward home and hit gridlock trying to get on I-405 in order to cross the river over the Fremont Bridge. All around the region, others were finally realizing the storm was a serious one, and they began jamming the freeways heading home from work.

Dooris didn't see any sanding, salt or de-icer trucks around. And with so many people trying to squeeze onto snowy roads, it didn't take long to wonder how ambulances and other emergency rigs were managing.

On I-405, Dooris spotted an ambulance that managed to creep past the traffic, probably on its way to Legacy Emanuel or Randall Children's Hospital on the other side of the bridge.

Eventually, traffic started to move. But as the snow started to build up on the pavement, plows were nowhere in evidence. 

Not our first rodeo

So why weren't the plows and de-icer trucks visibly out and about on Wednesday?

Portland Transportation Commissioner Mingus Mapps blamed the forecast and the gridlock.

"As late as 2:30 Wednesday afternoon we were in communications with the weather center. They were telling us, maybe expect half an inch or something," Mapps said. "And then I think about 2:30, that’s when we got the call saying if this weather system stays the way it is, we could see up to 8 inches — which is literally the perfect storm."

"So, it's Wednesday. You actually got lots of people going into the offices on Wednesday — literally zero notification about this. And then it's rush hour. So, PBOT had, did an amazing job being ready to go, but frankly we sent our trucks out there at exactly the time when everyone else was hitting the road so a lot of our plows were frankly, stuck in traffic too.”

Mapps said the storm taught him that next time he should send city workers home sooner, and spread the word for businesses to do the same.

But based on recent history, it's not clear that city leaders have learned much from past events like this. In 2016, a snow storm hit on a Wednesday and likewise snarled traffic. It trapped drivers on Highway 26 and stranded school buses. City leaders at the time thought that it was no big deal.

"I actually haven't heard that concern so I'm a little surprised to hear that," then-Mayor Charlie Hales told KGW's Laural Porter. "Again, I think the city did a good job. It's a 2-inch snow storm."

"But it caused a lot of problems," Porter replied. 

"Some people in other parts of the country might be amused that we consider this a 'Snowpocalypse,'" Hales said.

The next year was more dramatic. In 2017, Portland got walloped by an even worse storm, with 6.5 inches on the ground. This time, Mayor Ted Wheeler admitted that things did not go well.

"Too many roads have been closed, schools have been closed for too long, businesses have lost a lot of economic opportunity and people have been exposed to the elements in this community who should not have been exposed to the elements," he said.

Wheeler also specifically pledged that the city would learn from those mistakes.

"These last two and a half weeks has been a very humbling experience, but let's learn from it, let's pick up from it," he said. "Let's have the hard conversations. Let's evaluate how we did and not be defensive about it, and if there's things we can improve, let's improve."

In 2019, the Portland metro area got hit by an ice storm. Some roads were treated with salt, some were not. A PBOT spokesman judged that the city had done well:

"We never give ourselves an A and never 100% because we're always learning from every event. But given the routes that we've mapped and the level of services and resources that the city dedicates, the routes that we treated were clear."

Then, in 2021, Portland got hammered again, this time with 10 inches of snow. Naturally, there were plenty of problems.

But this time, city officials like Mapps weren't wrong when they said that the weather forecast changed on them rapidly. The city gets its weather forecast directly from the National Weather Service. They'd said there was just a 5% chance that the storm would dump a considerable amount of snow.

KGW's meteorology team was stumped as well. Chief meteorologist Matt Zaffino has been forecasting weather in Portland for 35 years. On Thursday evening, he explained what happened with this surprise outcome, when his worst case scenario had been closer to 3 inches of snow.

"What happened is this was a very small-scale feature and it stalled, I mean it literally just stopped moving," Zaffino explained. "Had it kept moving, it would have pulled the heavy snow away with it, and it didn't do that."

While meteorologists throughout the Portland metro area expected that system to bring snow, they also expected it to move on by Wednesday evening. Instead, it just sat over top of the region, continuously showering snow even as temperatures dropped due to cold winds coming from the east.

Before You Leave, Check This Out