Storm wallops region; schools closed because of snow

This version corrects a reference to Gov. Gregoire's emergency declaration. That declaration was for the rainstorms in mid-December

NORTH KITSAP — In the early hours of a frigid morning, before the rumble of school buses fill the North Kitsap School District bus depot and students wake up for a school day, Ronald Lee checks the weather forecast.

He makes his way to his personal weather station in his home on the west side of the Hood Canal Bridge, then checks his cell phone for weather reports.

With snow falling steadily outside his window, Lee, the school district’s transportation director, decides to test the roads.

"I've spent a lot of time out here on these roads,” Lee says while he drives his four-wheel drive Ram Charger, provided by the school district.

His decision to recommend North Kitsap’s schools be closed Wednesday came easily.

Several inches of snow fell on North Kitsap Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, snarling commutes and closing schools in the area.

Between one and eight inches of snow fell throughout the county.

North Kitsap Fire & Rescue responded to downed wires across Hood Canal Drive and a one-car collision on Bond Road early Wednesday morning. Because the snow fell late Tuesday night, most people were able to stay off the roads and avoid trouble, said Fire & Rescue spokeswoman Michele Laboda.

“Considering how much snow fell, it wasn’t busier than a regular evening for our crews,” Laboda said.

Wednesday morning brought a different challenge, when thick slush and standing water on the roadways caused a rash of car collisions throughout the county during the morning commute, she said.

Many of the main arterials in North Kitsap were cleared by Wednesday afternoon. Rain turned snow on many roads to slush, while some neighborhood and side roads remained covered in snow and ice.

Poulsbo city crews were on standby throughout the week for severe weather with plows, de-icer chemicals and a stockpile of sand for roadways, Public Works Director Barry Loveless said.

Roughly 1,500 homes were without power in Poulsbo and on Bainbridge Island Wednesday morning, according to Puget Sound Energy spokeswoman Allison Standford.

Schools were also closed in the Central and South Kitsap school districts and at Olympic College in Bremerton and Poulsbo.

A severe weather shelter at Poulsbo’s First Lutheran Church, 18920 4th Ave. N.E., opened Monday and Tuesday nights. One person sought refuge there Tuesday night, shelter coordinator Paul Davis said.

Two other shelters opened, at St. Paul’s Episcopal, 2117 Walnut St. and The Coffee Oasis, 822 Burwell St.

More than two decades on road

Lee’s lone patrol of North Kitsap, while most residents are in the safety and security of their homes, gives an indication of how hazardous those storm conditions can be.

At 2 a.m. Wednesday, Lee begins his two-and-a-half hour route around North Kitsap from his home to near Hood Canal.

Despite the option of four-wheel drive, Lee typically drives without it to get a better feel for what it will be like for standard vehicles and buses. If conditions on the road are so severe he has to use four-wheel, Lee does not have to do any tests.

“I have never been stuck,” Lee says as he purposely locks his brakes on a hill in the Clearcreek area, the truck beginning to slide sideways. “Knock on wood,” he says.

Because the weather can vary so drastically from one end of the school district to the other, the route Lee takes must encompass the whole district. As he makes his way from the Hood Canal, through Clearcreek and into Poulsbo, the snow on Wednesday turns from a blanket of snow to freezing rain.

The northern end of the county holds the cold temperatures, resulting in heavier snow fall, Lee explains as he steers the multi-ton white truck through a few inches of slush on Highway 3. Moving further south, what was heavy snow quickly turns into warmer temperatures, resulting in a completely different road surface. This reason alone is why Lee must observe the conditions around the county.

While his main goal is to determine how the buses will fare on the roads, his opinions affect the entire school district.

“It’s not just about getting the buses to and from school,” Lee explains in the early morning hours which he has become accustomed to. “Its about getting staff to school safely and the parents who drive their children to school.”

Accidents are not an uncommon sight during his morning routes, but with cell phones being common, he is rarely the first on a scene anymore.

“I see people just flying on sheer ice and I’m like ‘You will be lucky to make it where you’re going,’ ” he said.

Lee puts in up to 15 hours during winter days he must check the roads. If a storm sticks around, those long hours can stretch on for days. The longest stretch was four days, he said.

Despite the long hours and hazardous work, Lee remains passionate about his job.

As one of the few drivers on the road during a given storm in the morning, Lee — an avid skier and former ski bus driver — gets to experience the snow before it is dirtied by vehicles.

“I honestly love doing this,” Lee said. “I get to see the snow when it’s fresh — get the first tracks, so to speak.”

— Herald reporter Jennifer Morris contributed to this report.

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