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In Portland And Vancouver, A Tale Of 2 Storms

A winter storm blew through Oregon on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. It created commuting nightmares all over the state.

Dozens of abandoned vehicles. Hundreds of stranded students. Countless vehicle collisions and traffic delays. 

That was the net result of a snowstorm that swept up the Willamette Valley on Wednesday and left Portland reeling as it recovered Thursday.

But just north, across the Columbia River, Vancouver and other southwest Washington communities had a much different weather experience. 

“This morning we didn’t have any real issues on our side,” said Washington State Patrol Trooper William Finn. “Our freeway systems were looking great.”

Finn said WSP was extremely busy Wednesday night, receiving more than 100 calls to dispatch regarding minor accidents and roadside assistance requests. He said a number of vehicles spun out east of the I-205 junction near E. Mill Plain Boulevard.

But he added it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for a winter storm there.

“It’s always expected that we’ll see things like that when we have a weather front come through,” Finn said. “All in all, this weather system hasn’t done a lot of damage on our side. “

He said the Thursday morning commute was fairly clear, except for the occasional semi-truck pulled off of the main roadway to add tire chains before entering Oregon.

Roadways in the Portland area remained clogged Thursday morning with dozens of abandoned vehicles, and many major roadways covered in compacted snow through the morning hours.

Bart Treece, communications manager for the southwest district of the Washington Department of Transportation, said a number of factors can lead to treacherous road conditions.

In Clark County, WSDOT had pre-treated its roadways with the same chemical compounds as Oregon, and had as many people as were available plowing snow throughout the Wednesday commute.

Treece said motorists always play a role in how well crews are able to clean roads.

“Folks who planned ahead and drove appropriately for the conditions, that makes a huge difference,” Treece said of Washington’s road conditions during the storm. “If there are a lot of vehicles on the road, it is going to be hard.”

School Issues

The early winter storm also left hundreds of Portland and Beaverton School District students stranded on buses or in school buildings late into the night Wednesday.

“Our buses are stuck in the same gridlock that a lot of cars are dealing with,” said Beaverton spokeswoman Maureen Wheeler on Wednseday night.

That wasn’t the case in southwest Washington.

The Evergreen School District dismissed classes early for a long-planned teacher day. But even in districts like Battle Ground and Vancouver Public Schools, where kids were released after a full day of class, the storm didn’t prove to be a problem.

“Even the kids who released at 4 [p.m.] were home pretty much on time,” said Pat Nuzzo, spokeswoman for VPS.

Rita Sanders with Battle Ground Public Schools said a few of their buses became stuck in the snow, but the district quickly transferred students to new buses, contacted parents, and all of the kids were home by 6 p.m.

In Portland, some children remained on buses until around midnight.

A driver abandons their car on Interstate 5 after a winter storm cripples Portland's evening commute, Dec. 14, 2016.

A driver abandons their car on Interstate 5 after a winter storm cripples Portland’s evening commute, Dec. 14, 2016.

David Stuckey/OPB

The Difference

A number of factors could have contributed to the very different outcomes for Portland and Vancouver during the snowstorm.

For starters, the population density in Portland is much greater, which means more people on the road. Additionally, officials say the timing of the storm was a factor.

“The timing was awful. The forecast was for snow in the afternoon,” said John Brady with the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

Tens of thousands of commuters trying to leave the city at once and the snow hitting slightly earlier than expected rendered much of the department’s prep work useless, he said.

“People driving on the snow compacted it down and made the de-icer less effective,” Brady said. “Nobody anticipated the level of gridlock we saw.”

By contrast, WSDOT Trooper Finn said communication and preparation paid off in Washington. He recalled a large storm system a few years ago when the outcome in Vancouver was much different.

“It caught us less prepared,” he said of the particularly bad February storm. “We saw lots of cars abandoned on roadways during that event, clogging up the highways.”

Additionally, Wednesday’s storm dumped a majority of the snow south of Vancouver. KOIN reports that parts of Vancouver and Battle Ground received anywhere from 0.4 to 1 inch of snow, while Portland’s west hills received more than 3 inches.

Oregon Portland Vancouver Washington snow winter weather

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