Officials debate Washougal’s storm response

Councilwoman says City needs outside help during severe weather; mayor says ‘people should’ve been prepared’

timestamp icon
category icon Latest News, News, News, Washougal
A city of Washougal employee clears snow from a Washougal road In January 2024. (Contributed photo courtesy of the city of Washougal)

A Washougal City Council member is calling for the city of Washougal to improve its response to severe weather events, after back-to-back snow and ice storms in mid-January made roads and sidewalks impassable, stranding many Washougal residents inside their homes for several days.

Councilwoman Michelle Wagner called on City leaders to invest in additional severe-weather resources during the Council’s Jan. 22 workshop.

Wagner said the City’s public work’s department “does an amazing job with limited resources and personnel” during severe weather events, but that she believes the department could use some outside assistance.

“My hope is that the City will investigate what it might cost to have an enhanced service during these events, whether it be in the form of contracting out for more services or providing a hotline for people that are not in need of 911 services but must navigate on city roads for their health, essential work positions, food insecurity or well-being,” Wagner said. “Four to eight days is a long time for these folks to be unable to leave their homes.”

Wagner said some local residents told her they were “trapped” inside their residences for up to eight straight days, with the road conditions limiting their ability to buy food and go to medical appointments.

“We can get to most of our arterial streets, but due to resource and personnel constraints, it takes us a lot longer to clear our collectors and local streets,” Wagner told The Post-Record. “A good majority (of Washou gal residents) are situated on extremely steep hills, which can be impossible to traverse, even with four-wheel drive vehicles. These are the folks that I have heard from the last few years and who have passed on to me their desire for more timely service.”

City Manager David Scott responded to Wagner’s comments during the Jan. 22 workshop, and said contracting with outside services would likely be an expensive proposition for the City that could cost “thousands and thousands” of dollars.

“That seems worth it to me, to hire an extra couple snow plows for ‘the big one’ that happens once or twice every couple of years,” Wagner said. “It might be worth it for the safety of the community. I just want to be able to give people something, or hopefully enhance our system.”

Scott said the City handles all of its snow removal “in-house,” and owns and operates four snow plows, and advised residents to call 911 if they were experiencing an emergency.

“We built on hills in this city, so the expectation is that you’re able to maintain and plow those hills,” Wagner said. “Otherwise, why did you develop on them?”

Back-to-back winter storms fueled by cold arctic air and wind speeds that reached over 50 miles per hour near the Columbia River Gorge blanketed the area in snow and ice Jan. 13-21.

“Snow is one thing for a community, (but) ice is a completely different dynamic,” Scott said. “We had some trees down. There were some power outages. It was a pretty significant weather event that closed us for four days.”

Trevor Evers, the City’s director of public works, told The Post-Record that City crews “worked extremely hard for the community by using all the tools in our toolbox to deliver safe, passable roads for all our citizens.”

“Were able to effectively keep all the bold black lines on (the City’s) map clear and passable during the duration of the storm, except for anything east of the intersection of ‘W’ Street and 39th Street,” Evers said. “This includes the loop (Summer Slope North and a small piece of Columbia View) due to the extreme difficulty crews were having based on the accumulation of ice and the significant amount of time it was taking to clear.”

After the streets refroze, the City’s crews “worked through the night to ensure that we didn’t lose any ground, (efforts which were) successful,” according to Evers.

“However, with the hardening of the ice and snow on the ground, we were also unable to make any new headway,” he added.

As the temperatures rose above freezing later on Friday, Jan. 19, the City made “additional headway and got back to the red priority-one (routes) and then down the line to the twos and threes,” according to Evers.

Crews worked for 12 hours on Saturday, Jan. 20, and six hours on Sunday, Jan. 21, “to continue to open up the rest of the priority (routes) and those not listed as a tiered priority level,” Evers said.

“We had crews working lots and lots of overtime,” Scott said during the Council workshop. “They were coming in at 3:30 a.m. to (start on) the primary routes, and they were able to stay ahead of the priority-one streets, the major arterials, the whole time except for a little bit. (They put in) a lot of long, cold, miserable hours doing the best that they can with our limited resources to keep the community safe, so we always really appreciate that.”

Several Council members said they think the City’s response to severe-weather events is adequate.

“I’ve been here since 1975, and I can’t remember that long of an incapacitating storm that kept us in house (for that long),” Councilman Ernie Suggs said. “Emergency preparedness is something we should do all the time, not just during storms. If you’re prepared, you can stay in your house for a week without too much of a problem. I don’t know if it’s going to happen next year, but every time it does happen, we’re going to have problems. But the City did exactly what they needed to do and how they needed to do it. I wouldn’t want any other way.”

“Our crew does the best they can,” Councilwoman Molly Coston said. “And I know if there was really an emergency, either 311 with the police or 911 through CRESA would get it resolved. People just have to have some patience and be good neighbors.”

Washougal Mayor David Stuebe said residents “have to be careful and smart” during severe-weather events, adding that, if “there’s an absolute emergency, the City can handle it.”

“I fielded a lot of phone calls, and they were all like, ‘I went down Crown Road and it’s not plowed and it’s not de-iced.’ I’m like, ‘Why are you out there driving in the first place?’” Stuebe said. “I liked (Camas-Washougal Fire Department Fire Chief Cliff Free’s) message saying that unless it’s an emergency, stay home. We were well informed that this storm was coming, so people should’ve prepared for it.”