Weather Weirdness

Moving to the Seattle area has been quite the education in more ways than one. For instance, I lived in Florida for so many (too many) decades that I assumed that weather worked the same way everywhere. Not that everyone had the pleasure of the unbearable heat and oppressive humidity that we experienced there 11 months a year. No. What I mean is, in Florida, I could look out the window, see what the weather was like, and pretty much bank on the fact that everyone within a hundred-mile radius was experiencing that same exact weather. I thought that was normal, you know?

Another thing I grew to assume in Florida was that the weather was predictable. (Granted, I left there before global warming kicked in with a vengeance. Maybe that has changed.) For the bulk of the year, I used to be able to count on what was referred to as PC-CHAT (Partly Cloudy, CHance of Afternoon Thunderstorms). In fact, in Central Florida you could practically set your watch by it. You would get a torrential downpour every day at 3 p.m.

Then I moved to the Seattle area. And boy, did I ever get schooled. I had to add the word “microclimate” to my vocabulary list. I had never even heard that word before moving here. It’s definitely a thing. You can literally drive 2 miles down the road and experience completely different weather. Two neighborhoods, just 5 miles apart, can have an average difference of seven inches of rain per year. The little valley that I live in, I’m told, almost never sees snow. But if you climb up the slope on either side of us, you can be hit with a snowstorm that requires the roads to be plowed.

I can sometimes experience a 10 degree temperature difference between work and home. (It’s very weird to think that when I go to work, my dog and I are experiencing different weather. He refuses to talk about it.)

And predictability? Forget it. Just this year, city government officials were expecting a storm with such high winds that they actually activated the Emergency Operations Center, and many city employees worked through the night, expecting disaster. There was the usual panic as residents rushed out to buy last minute supplies and batten down the hatches. But the storm took a sharp turn and missed us entirely. And just the other day it snowed. That wasn’t even in the forecast. It took everyone by surprise.

The meteorologists around here certainly have their work cut out for them. Why is that? Well, there are a number of factors that come into play around here that cause us to be in a climactic washing machine of sorts. The first is that we are nestled between two north/south mountain ranges—the Olympics and the Cascades. These ranges are the cause of another new vocabulary term for me: “rain shadow”. As the weather travels eastward, the mountains rob the atmosphere of a lot of the moisture, so people living just to the east of the mountains experience a lot less rain. And those to the west have the pleasure of seeing the clouds stall right above them as they hit the mountains.

And north of Seattle you tend to get a light, ever-present drizzle, whereas south of Seattle you may not see rain as often, but when you do, it comes down a lot harder. And the closer you are to the water, the less rain you tend to see. Go figure. It’s like crossing the border into another country or something.

Another factor, of course, is elevation. There are a lot of hills and valleys in this area. The higher up you are, the more apt you will be to be snowed upon. That makes sense. But since the elevation shifts so abruptly here, the weather is notably different from one neighborhood to the next. And then being right on Puget Sound adds another level of complexity that I have yet to fathom.

So, yeah, there’s a learning curve to living out here. And now that I’ve bought a house in a completely different microclimate, I’m back to square one. But I think I’m up for the challenge.

Seattle microclimates

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Working a Tropical Storm

We’ve had our fair share of natural disasters this year. But when you pair that with an increasing disregard for workers, you get a toxic combination. People are getting fired for having to mandatorily evacuate and therefore being unable to show up for work. People have been forced to work in extremely unsafe situations, leaving their families at times when they’re needed most. When human life stops being the most important factor, we have reached a new low.

What follows is a letter I was forced to write back in 2008, when I was a bridgetender in Jacksonville, Florida, and the Florida Department of Transportation put my life at risk. As per usual with them, I never got any response, and there seemed to be no consequences. I hope they are treating bridgetenders more fairly now, as these disasters increase in frequency. But I doubt it.

Dear Mr. XXXXXXXX:

Hurricane season is once again upon us. As a bridgetender who had to work at Ortega River Bridge in the early morning hours of Friday, August 22nd during the very worst of Tropical Storm Fay, I feel compelled to give you some insight as to what that was like.

I had to drive to work in 50 mph winds, detouring around downed trees and power lines, and then walked up the bridge to the tenderhouse, getting drenched in the process, and nearly being blown into the street on more than one occasion, only to find out that the coast guard had closed the bridge to boat traffic. I was informed that FDOT was aware of this, but since your wind meter did not match the speeds registered by the one in the tenderhouse, you decided we had to work.

Every weather channel said that the winds were going to be at least 50 mph. Clearly the Coast Guard believed this and took boater safety very seriously. Apparently, we were only there to monitor the radio, but the only transmissions I heard all night were the many Coast Guard announcements that informed boaters of the bridge closings, because no boater in his right mind was out in that weather. No cars were out either, except for the bridgetender who was compelled to relieve me at the end of the shift.

During the entire length of my shift, surrounded by electrical equipment, I was forced to mop water down the hatch and bail as it literally poured in the doors, windows, and through the air conditioner. At one point the heavy traffic cones and life ring blew into the street and I had to wrestle them indoors. Not only should the traffic gates be secured in such weather, but also the traffic cones, life rings and convex mirror should be stowed indoors to avoid becoming projectiles. Apparently that was left up to me during the height of the storm.

When my bladder could no longer hold out, I was forced to venture outdoors and across the street to the bathroom in a downpour, and once again I was nearly blown off my feet. Had I been hurt, no one would have known for hours. Not once did anyone call to check on me.

In the meantime, the power was continually going off and on, which caused the generator to kick in as I watched transformers exploding on the horizon. I found out the next day that water spouts were spinning up on the river. The wind shook the building and the waves crested over the fenders.

When it was time to go home, I once again had to walk down the bridge, and the wind was blowing so hard that the rain was physically painful. Once again I was drenched as no rain coat in the world can stand up to those conditions, and by the time I detoured around even more downed trees and power lines to get home, my lips were blue from the cold and I had to stave off hypothermia by taking an extended hot bath. Thank God my electricity was not out or I would probably have been hospitalized.

The worst part about the whole experience, sir, was that I spent the entire shift afraid, and my family was afraid for me. And the whole time I kept thinking, “I haven’t had a raise in 5 years, and I have $5,000 in medical debt because of substandard health insurance. Must I risk my life, too?”

I can’t speak for other bridgetenders. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to climb the ladder at the Main Street Bridge under these conditions. I’m sure my life would have been flashing before my eyes.

I hope you will take this letter into consideration when making decisions in future storms. I hope I never have to have another experience like that as long as I live.

                                      Sincerely…

Tropical Storm Fay
Tropical Storm Fay. Would you have expected your employees to work in this?

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My Scariest Bridge Moment

Most drawbridges, unless they are automated or opened by appointment only, are manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is a very good reason for this. Maritime law predates most other law by as much as a century. Impeding maritime transit in any way is a HUGE no-no. Bridgetenders who abandon a bridge without express permission from the Coast Guard can be prosecuted.

In my experience, the only time I’ve seen a ‘tender-less bridge is when said bridge was in the path of an imminent hurricane. Needless to say, no sane vessel is out in that weather, and it’s generally poor form to kill off one’s employees. Or so you’d think.

Unfortunately, I was once caught up in a Florida Department of Transportation snafu of epic proportions. A tropical storm was headed our way. To reach tropical storm category, the winds have to be 39 to 73 miles per hour. Per the Coast Guard, we cannot open a drawbridge if the sustained winds are 39 miles per hour or more, so they were already announcing on the marine radio that all bridges would be closed.

The Department of Transportation was disassembling our traffic gates and tying them to our railings so they’d still be there when the storm was over. So we couldn’t open the bridge due to wind. And we had no traffic gates. The Coast Guard was announcing that the bridges were closed. So we should be able to get off the dangerous windy bridges, right?

Oh no. Even though I didn’t work for DOT, but rather for a subcontractor, DOT got to make the decision. And they decided that since this was a tropical storm, not a hurricane, we had to stay put.

But the weather forecast was predicting that it would be upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane by the time it reached us. That means 74 to 95 mile per hour winds. But that “official” change would not take place until after regular office hours. Pretty please, can we take shelter? No.

If I wanted to keep my job and not go to prison, I had to go to work. Streets were flooded. Trees were down. I had to detour several times just to get to my destination. Then I had to walk up the bridge. The rain was coming at me sideways. It felt like I was being pelted with ice cold hypodermic needles. I had to lean into the wind to make progress. Forget about an umbrella. Impossible.

To make matters worse, it was the graveyard shift, and even at the best of times at that hour you feel like you’re the only person alive on the face of the earth. I was sitting all alone in a tenderhouse that was 3 feet wide by 8 feet long. I’ve seen coffins that were bigger. I hoped that this wasn’t going to become mine.

The bridge was swaying. I watched as transformers blew up all over town. The phone went down first. Then my power went out, and the generator kicked in. I was soon to wish that it hadn’t.

Imagine this: I’m trapped in a little room with a big electrical console and suddenly the wind shifts and is now at such an angle that the sideways rain is pouring through the crack where the window meets the sill. I now have a cascade of water flowing down the wall, past my feet, and heading toward the electrical wiring.

Fortunately there’s a hatch in the floor. So I open the hatch, take a broom, and sweep the water down the hatch. And I do this for, literally, 5 straight hours.

At the end of my shift, the worst was over. I was amazed to be alive, and even more amazed that my coworker came in to relieve me. I walked off the bridge, soaking wet, exhausted, in 40 mile per hour winds and temperatures in the 50’s. Talk about a wind chill factor. By time I got home (which was no mean feat since power lines were down everywhere), my lips were blue. We heated water in the fireplace so I could take a bath.

Never once did anyone take ownership of that fiasco. No one was fired. No one apologized. Policies were not changed. But I have a blog, so I can have the last word. But do I even have to tell you my opinion of the Florida Department of Transportation? I think you can guess.

050709-N-0000B-001
U.S. Navy photo by Jim Books (RELEASED)

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