Frances Bula header image 2

If it doesn’t rain all night, we are in trouble

January 5th, 2009 · 22 Comments

Just got back (near midnight at this point) from several of hours of driving around the main streets in Vancouver. Don’t ask. Clearly an act of insanity, but the point is that I’ve been on the road for several hours since the snow started falling around 5 p.m.

The streets were and are at the worst ever, since there now seems to be a layer of very rough and patchy compacted ice on all the main arteries. It stays even after the ploughs go by, which I don’t understand since the main streets throughout Vancouver and Burnaby were generally really good the last three weeks, even if everything else still looked like a 19th-century Siberian village.

I’d love to know what the scene was like in the various engineering departments tonight, since my understanding is they were all preparing for flooding after the weather forecasts said rain and +7 degrees. (Speaking of which, why is everyone dumping on the snow-ploughing efforts around the city? What about those meteorologists who keep predicting rain and then are off by several degrees?) It must have been a fun job, calling everyone to start ploughing again.

And it doesn’t seem to be doing much good, as I said. Just when it looked like the end was in sight, too. I actually spotted a plough on a side street, in Strathcona, clearing Keefer but leaving huge piles of slushy snow to the side where the cars were parked and even blocking streets feeding into Keefer. You can’t win.

Anyway, as I said in my headline, if there isn’t enough rain overnight to melt those rough patches, it’ll be a disaster in the morning. They make driving very erratic, since your wheels will sometimes catch bare pavement but sometimes not. As well, even though I’ve been able to make it up my sidestreet the last 24 days or whatever, I no longer can. There’s so much snow that by the time I get halfway up, I’ve ploughed myself a little snow barrier that prevents me from going any further. So here’s hoping for some rain between now and 7 tomorrow morning.

For all of you who are wondering what the city of Vancouver’s post-mortem on this is likely to be, I’ve been told that, yes, there will be a review by the engineering department, which happens any time there’s a major engineering event (floods, trees down, etc.) but no, there won’t be a Royal Commission or a Blue Ribbon Panel to analyze the problem. (My snide wording, not theirs.)

One more thought on the snow situation from the irrepressible Jonathan Baker, former city councillor, former planner, now a lawyer who handles a lot of legal cases involving cities. He has a long, long memory and this is what he reminded me of in a message today.

I know that everybody at City Hall writes reports and nobody reads them, but it would be interesting to dig out a report that had been prepared by the City Engineer, Bill Curtis, back in the early seventies. The City Engineers had prepared a graph of snow fall going back as far as records allowed and showed that snow cycles occurred with sine wave regularity over twelve year intervals.

Curtis, who was one of the most brilliant people and certainly the best civil servant I ever met, accordingly timed the sale and acquisition of equipment based on the cycle and over that particular period proved to be right. That was a time when it was a considered a certainty that global cooling was the thing of the f uture and it would not surprise me if City Hall, with its global warming plan may have ignored climate cycles and discounted the likelihood that old fashioned snow falls like this one would ever occur.

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  • Ah, so sensible, Frances. Here’s a photo essay of my snowbound Metrotown-area neighbourhood:

    Pretty. I plan on walking around tomorrow.

  • A. G. Tsakumis

    Why would anyone pay attention to the likes of Jonathan Baker or 600 climate scientists who questioned global warming in Poland recently??

    Mainstream media (present company and few others excluded)=absolute whores for the secular left and sycophantic fool brigade.

    Of course, Jonathan is quite correct. But, again, why listen? It’s great to take absurd pot shots at Gregor and equally great to condemn councillors for offering spin (imagine that?!)

    If it’s true that the last cycle should be preparing us for this one–who’s regime is to blame?

    The Nutty One, of course…and his cadre of newly minted blog geniuses.

  • I recently wrote about how badly prepared against the snow is Vancouver (more so than the other municipalities in the actual Metro Vancouver region), and I am still frustrated that government officials are saying “if you don’t need to drive – then don’t do it!”

    Excuse me? No emergency preparedness plan? What the …?

  • LP


    From my posts you will see that I haven’t dumped on city hall as yet for this once in a lifetime snow-fall, but I do have many questions regarding how they’ve handled this.

    Perhaps the city media will start asking these questions after they dig their cars out and get back to reporting (other than you it seems).

    1) I recently heard an interview with head of the works yard (??) Murray (last name ??), who indicated that come Monday Jan 5th, all holidays should be done, so a full staff would be available to get at the snow, drains, etc…

    Shouldn’t the city manager, in the event of a once in a lifetime snow fall have canceled some or most holidays and called staff back to work to deal with this?

    2) Much of the city has gone without garbage collection for most of December 13 – now. We did have one pick-up last week when they claimed things were back to normal, but the recycling trucks have not been out.

    So, have these people been paid as per their contracts, or not? If so, were they reassigned for snow removal and other tasks or just given their pay for sitting on their collective asses?

    3) What other services and staff were restricted during this time, either saving the city money, or leaving people to sit on their ass while getting paid?

    4) Although the city may be over budget with snow-removal, the lack of garbage and other services may result in a possible savings for the city (depending on many factors of course).

    So, what’s the bottom line here? Is the city making a small profit on the backs of it’s taxpayers, and if so what do they plan on doing with it?

    5) From your earlier post and conversation with Raymond Louie, re: the cost of posting signs throughout the city. $300K for hanging signs prior to plowing the city. Seriously. What kind of BS is that?

    I’d like to know the breakdown of costs here and how much of that amount goes to wages. Frankly this sounds like the toilets on the space shuttle. Expensive and over-priced.

    There needs to be a review here and if the city and/or unions cannot efficiently post signs throughout the city at this type of costing, it needs to be contracted out.

    Perhaps any surplus from lack of other city services will be gobbled up by overtime for workers just back from holidays who have lots to catch up.

    Or perhaps the lefties will find a way to spend anything they get, as they always do. Perhaps a good time for those fish-design manhole covers
    from 2005 to be purchased.

    I’m not going to complain at the current admin/council/mayor, etc for the inconveniences of a once in a lifetime snowfall, shit, er snow happens.

    However I do think much of this boils down to how the current admin/council/mayor plan to deal with their unions and labour issues during their mandate.

    This could have been dealt with DIFFERENTLY and BETTER than it was. It needed to start with manpower and organization of such.

    So the answers to those questions, without spin are……

  • Ms. Bula said:

    “Speaking of which, why is everyone dumping on the snow-ploughing efforts around the city? What about those meteorologists who keep predicting rain and then are off by several degrees?”


    You mean the Two Spamaloteers haven’t started blaming the Gregor Robertson-controlled Weather Network for getting the timing of the Pineapple Express’ arrival wrong yet?



  • Denis

    Has any of the complainers put their shovel to work and cleared the sidewalk in front of thier place? Hell no, blame the mayor and council.

    Forcasters have a tough job and the weather can be quite different a few blocks away. To be realistic, just how ofteh is there a big dump of snow here on the coast? To gear up for a seldom storm would break any municipality.

    Frances mentions a place is Siberia. It brought to mind conditions in PEI back in the early 60’s when we were down there taking a flying course. The snow brought 14 foot drifts. The province had no snowblower so road clearing was baiscally impossible. But the province could always find a pregnant woman somewhere who was about due, so they declared an emergency and the military was dispatched to clear the roads, with their snow blowers. Sure cut down on the provicnial expenses. And it snowed pretty heavy each year but the military was used as the provinces snow removal service. Oh the good old days wern’t that good.

  • Dawn Steele

    Last night was horrendous, Frances. We got caught driving back from Tsawaasswen – a white-knuckle drive we’d never have made with our all-seasons if the forecast hadn’t insisted it would rain. The little hatchback managed to crawl past all the other cars stuck on Oak Street only to get stuck 2 blocks from home! Off to dig it out now.

    Speaking of stuck, the garbage truck did try to make it down our street this morning but was blocked by someone’s car stuck halfway out their driveway!

    I’ve never seen anything close to this in my 10 years in Vancouver, so am really not surprized that no one was prepared for it.

    The scientists I work with occasionally keep saying that we should expect more of the unexpected with climate change – thus you’re taking big risks by planning for the future based solely on past patterns. And with a strong La Nina or possibly a shift to a colder decadal regime (PDO) kicking in, we could actually get a temporary reprieve from the longer-term warming trend for the next decade or so, and see some cooling before it returns with a bang.

    The order of the day seems to be adaptive management, precautionary approaches that leave extra room for error, more robust systems that help us roll with the punches and tempering all those fancy models with common sense and actual observations. It’s costlier than the razor-thin margins and maxed-out leveraging that we’ve all come to accept as the only way to do business, so we will really need to think it all through carefully and make some tough decisions as to what’s more important.

    One amusing footnote to all this is how much we’re all wishing for the rain to come back – so that we can carry on with our usual complaining about when is the endless rain ever going to stop!

  • foo

    What’s with all these people here saying “grab a shovel and clear the sidewalks”? Maybe in your elitist neighbourhoods no-one clears the sidewalks, but here in ordinary-joe land, everyone of my neighbours has dutifully and religiously shovelled. You can walk wherever you like. Except past the schools, which haven’t been cleaned once.

    People have even dug out openings for cars to park in, cleared the lanes as best possible. But our sidestreets are still impassable. All we ask for is a once over by a pickup-truck with a plough – make a 6-7 foot wide path in the middle of the street, and we’ll dig the cars out of the resulting mess. Is that too much to ask for from the city we pay taxes to? We’re not even asking for the garbage to be cleared.

    Fact is, all the apologists for the city should park their partisanship, and admit that this is piss-poor disaster planning by management and employees at city hall. In the engineering department especially. Heads should roll. Forget the damn politicians. Go after the people we pay big bucks to provide us services.

    Sure this is just a snow-fall. But if the city response is so crappy when all the infrastructure is in perfect shape, how are they going to respond when there’s an earthquake? We’ll be able to say we’re world-class in emergency response – just like New Orleans, Burma, Pakistan, China.

  • LB

    Have to say…. I live downtown and don’t drive… had no idea there was chaos and rage going on in the city over snow. I haven’t had any troubles.

    Just to give a different perspective.

  • T W

    I am surprised that if the city has scenario planning for high impact low risk events, they always seem surprised and uncertain when the events happen. Disaster scenarios during the 2010 Olympics are one obvious area for scenario planning. We do not need to know what the responses might be (that would benefit opponents of the Olympics) only that our elected representatives had commissioned and oversaw a scenario planning response plan.

    That is why we pay city managers so well .

  • tommi

    Let’s face it, the City failed miserably in how it dealt with this long bout of severe weather while apparently His Worship was working on his tan in Mexico. I blame the NPA and Sam Sullivan. It’s all their fault. Always.

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  • julia

    Raymond Louie suggests he only has 4 email complaints about the snow. Interesting. I sent an email to M&C on December 23rd at 2pm. Got notification today that it had been sent. Hmmm, wonder how many snow complaints were sitting in the clerks inbox while the hall was closed for the holiday?

    Wonder how many ploughs sat parked because staff were away on holidays and there was nobody to operate them.

  • foo

    Well LB, that pretty much sums up the city’s attitude. The 20% of the residents that live downtown have all the amenities and services, and there’s just a large middle finger for the rest of the population. (To say nothing of the rest of Metro Vancouver).

  • Bill Lee

    And they don’t plough or sweep the bike routes anytime during
    the year. Now we try to ride the ruts, but in November the
    slippery leaves and the hoar-frost are murder.
    Better to push the fully loaded bike as a loaded wheelbarrow inst

    And this city is not unilingual English, they have to put
    out news in at least a half-dozen languages as few read or
    watch the English media. 5 Sun/Provinces delivered in the
    mornings to 50 homes I can see with early morning coffee.

    Are we going to put up the red-clear-the-street lights as
    in Quebec city for mass ploughing, and carrying away to
    the melting bin, of street snow after a blizzard?
    Light snow gets left behind and it usually too cold and thus
    extremely dry to snow anymore.

    And all our local walks are cleared in a variety of patterns
    by this morning: whole sidewalk, central path, one half of
    walk that is not hardpacked by foot traffic etc. We tend
    to copy others. One person who washes his van daily,
    also clears the snow 4 times a day. Obsessive.
    Not often is salt used though. So much for the school kids
    who painted fish by all the storm drains as an admonition
    not to put noxious chemicals down the storm drain.
    I tend to find more bumps and small potholes this time_________
    and will this be a mad rush of ‘patching’ in February?__________

  • spartikus

    Why would anyone pay attention to the likes of Jonathan Baker or 600 climate scientists who questioned global warming in Poland recently??

    Not to be a stick in the mud on something that is off-topic, but the claim “600 climate scientists questioned global warming at a conference in Poland” is false.

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  • Dawn Steele

    Foo, a small change in altitude and distance from the water clearly makes a big difference – here on Little Mountain, our street has piles of snow almost high enough to toboggan on – so I don’t think downtowners are getting any special treatment.

    It was interesting that you used the analogy of disaster/earthquake response. Our governments make it very clear we’re all on our own for 36 Hours(!!) after an earthquake.

    Having lived through natural disasters and survived 3 months without power, I see these things as inevitable and I’d never bet my life on government alone. I’m still uncomfortable with the notion, which most take for granted in Vancouver, that every necessity of my life depends on an uninterrupted supply of electricity.

    I could be pissed, having spent 2 hours digging out my car this afternoon (and let me state for the record that chivalry is NOT dead in Vancouver – half the block came to my rescue!)

    And I do think the city engineering people have some explaining to do to. But really, let’s keep it in perspective: inconvenient, yes, but being unable to drive one’s car is not a crisis in a city with public transportation – hundreds of thousands of people do it every day.

    Stuff happens. We need to accept some responsibility to look out for our own families and neighbours, unless we want to pay a fortune in taxes in the hope we’ll be protected from craddle to grave (and it won’t work anyway; the unforeseen will always come along.)

    (And if we’re going to spend a fortune on disaster prep, I propose we start by seismically upgrading our schools – the most dangerous structures in our city, along with those old Gastown buildings – so we’ll at least have some kids left when we bully government into fixing our houses because we didn’t bother taking out earthquake insurance.)

    How many people here have winter tires? Had this been foreseeable, we’d all have them. But I made the same calculation as the engineers and figured the cost wasn’t worth it, given the chances of this event & the options of taking transit instead or just staying put.

  • foo

    Really, I don’t feel any need to make excuses for the city. We have local government to provide services to us. That’s what it’s there for. I’d say finding a way to make (some, never mind most) streets passable 3 weeks after a major snowfall is not too much to ask. We’re not talking about snow that lasts a week even.

    My point about earthquakes is simply, if the city can’t even deal with a snowfall – a fairly significant snowfall, but it’s just snow after all – how on earth will they deal with an earthquake?

    What if it happens over the Xmas period when their employees are off? Do their plans include waiting for 2 weeks to get out the earth-moving equipment and do a bit of search and rescue?

    I’m being facetious, but that’s the point of disaster preparedness. It doesn’t mean spending a fortune on snow ploughs we never use. It means having plans to mobilize appropriate resources (people and technology) in appropriate timeframes when something out of the ordinary happens.

    Take the bs about having to put up signs to notify people about snow ploughs coming down the street. In the current circumstances, all they would have to do is circulate a press release to all the local media (they know how to do that, I would hope) saying something like “over the next few days a plough might come down your street. Move your car or will be buried”.

    Not having an idea of how you’ll handle an emergency leads to crap like “it’ll cost $300k to put up signs to tell people to move their car to the other side of the street”.

  • T W

    The Mayor is alleged to have said this is/was a 1 in 50 year event in order to explain the seeming lack of the City coping with the snowfall.

    The credit crunch and market malaise around the Olympic Village may have about the same probability and we have to hope (and pray) that senior officials and elected representatives have a better grasp of disaster and scenario planning around the Olympic event than they do with rare but predictable heavy snow events.

  • coldwater

    Well it all depends on how much taxation you want. This was a once in a long time occurrence and if you want to spend millions and millions on snow clearing equipment and hire lots of extra people to work the 24 hour shifts, then we can have clear streets. Personally I would rather not waste the money on equipment that will sit and rust most years and then when it is needed not function. I would rather live with the snow for a couple of weeks every 10 years or so. And yes I know the ambulances have to get through and pensioners need to get groceries. There can be and should be contingency plans for all of these situations. Neighbours could surely help with shopping and medical appointments etc. Just how much tax do you want to pay?

  • A. G. Tsakumis

    Actually, spartakus old boy, the site you link to is the real fraud. The credentials of those in attendance were not up for discussion–ever. Read the real report in the Telegraph. I will try and locate the link and send it to you.

    Cheers on your other posts though!