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Denver Snowstorm Mess and Blame for CDOT, DPS, Weather Forecasters

A Denver bus stuck in yesterday's snowstorm.
A Denver bus stuck in yesterday's snowstorm.
CBS4 via YouTube
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No one can dispute that yesterday's snowstorm caused a mess that paralyzed Denver for much of the day. But there's disagreement aplenty over whether anyone's to blame for mishandling the situation.

Throughout the morning of Monday, January 28, Westword heard from commuters fuming about what they saw as an inadequate job by the Colorado Department of Transportation and other entities when it came to being prepared for the snowfall and keeping ahead of it. Likewise, multiple sources expressed dismay that Denver Public Schools, which is currently teetering on the brink of a teachers' strike, didn't call a snow day or even a delayed start for the academic schedule.

However, neither CDOT nor DPS acknowledge that anything went wrong or could have been done better.

In contrast, one TV weather forecaster actually issued a public apology for failing to more accurately predict the flaky deluge, which measured in the six-to-twelve-inch range over a much larger portion of the metro area than had been expected.

As traffic gridlock reigned on highways and major arterials alike, CBS4's Chris Spears tweeted an illustration of a sheepish-looking man and the words "I'm sorry," along with this message: "Meteorologists stay humble. We’re never going to master Mother Nature. And general public...be compassionate. All weekend I said this will be a high impact storm regardless of totals. But the bottom line is it dumped way more than expected and that is frustrating."

Spears followed up by sharing a screen capture of an email from a viewer named Gene — and as you can see below, it's the opposite of an attaboy:

Denver Snowstorm Mess and Blame for CDOT, DPS, Weather Forecasters (2)

In his followup tweet, Spears wrote: "I used to get mad about these. Now I just say wow...if this sets you off, you must have one tough life. We still love you Gene! (And yes this is just one of MANY emails)."

No doubt CDOT got plenty of pushback, too, for not mobilizing more quickly after it became clear that the snow total would be higher than anticipated almost everywhere in the city. At 4:30 to 5:15 a.m. on Monday, when I drove from southwest Jefferson County to Westword's Golden Triangle office, C-470, I-70 and 6th Avenue along my route were in bad shape. They didn't appear to have been plowed or treated in any way, and because of the amount of snow, there was no lane definition in plenty of places. This situation grew more extreme in the hours that followed as the traffic volume increased.

Did CDOT rely too heavily on the forecast, resulting in a tardy response crippled by already jammed roadways when it proved less than precise? Not according to department spokesman Bob Wilson.

"No, we weren't caught off guard," he wrote at 8 a.m. on the 28th via email. "We went on snow shift last night, knowing the storm would probably hit early morning. It's just the timing — commuter hours, heavy snowfall. We have our full compliment of plows — about 100 in Denver metro. We are focusing on the interstates and main highways such as C-470, as opposed to the secondary state roads at this time due to the time of day. It's a 'double your commute time' morning."

This proved to be a low-ball estimate for thousands of people — especially ones who traveled roads that were afflicted with one or more accidents. We spoke to a number of folks whose commute times were in excess of triple the typical. Because of a closure on I-70, one person's regular fifteen-minute drive clocked in at two hours and ten minutes.

The current profile pic on the Denver Public Schools Facebook page.
The current profile pic on the Denver Public Schools Facebook page.

Among those who experienced life in the slow lane were parents of Denver Public Schools students or district employees trying to get to the facilities at the appointed hour — a nearly impossible task for many. A teacher tells us that of the twenty-plus pupils in her class, only five made it to school on Monday, putting her in a position of essentially babysitting rather than introducing new material.

Yet not only didn't DPS cancel classes for the day or declare a late start, but the district never sent any communication about the weather or road conditions via its Facebook page — whose current profile pic shows happy children playing in the snow — or its Twitter account.

Reacting to an inquiry from Westword, DPS spokeswoman Anna Alejo offered an email explanation for the district's actions, or lack thereof, that basically threw predictors such as CBS4's Spears under the school bus.

"The decision to delay or close is based on expected accumulation of snow, the size of the storm and its duration," she maintained. "Our transportation director assesses local and national weather projections and confers with City of Denver plowing schedules, CDOT and neighboring school districts before making the call. If, for example, we expect snow to affect school drop-off as well as pickup, we will consider closing."

Alejo added: "For today’s storm, forecasters said Denver would have 1-3 inches of accumulation, and they anticipated the snow would stop by 10 a.m."

As pointed out above, it was clear well before sun-up on Monday morning that this prognostication was off-base. But Alejo suggests that such signs needed to pop up even earlier.

"This storm came in the early morning," she allowed. "The temperatures were in the 20s with limited wind, and snow totals weren’t projected to go high and weren’t high when we needed to make any closure decisions in order to notify students, families and staff (decision was made at 3:30 a.m.). Snow totals have been higher than projected, but it was expected to taper off by mid-morning. [Actually, snow kept falling well into the afternoon.] Additionally, we check with our neighboring school districts and all of them were planning to stay open, feeling traffic would be slow but the conditions would not be overly hazardous through the morning commute."

Indeed, other major districts were open on Monday, too; the list of closures for January 28 comprised mainly private schools.

Alejo stressed that "we consider impacts to families and their ability to safely travel." However, "schools are not only vital places of learning for students, but they also provide nutrition, health care, counseling and essential support services. Whenever possible, DPS strives to keep schools open."

Meanwhile, the Denver Police Department tweeted that 78 crashes had happened by 8:30 a.m. Monday — and this morning, icy patches linger on the highways (particularly on ramps and overpasses), and driving on many side streets is like navigating the surface of the moon.

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