As Seattle Gears Up for Winter Weather, Officials Scramble to Secure Emergency Shelter

by Ben Adlin

Seattle officials are urging residents to prepare for a series of winter storms expected to bring snow and sustained below-freezing temperatures to the region this week, warning that the severe weather could cause power outages, create problems for drivers, and put vulnerable populations at risk.

“We have to check in with our neighbors at times like this, especially our seniors and disabled neighbors,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “And also remember, you have the responsibility to shovel that sidewalk in front of your property.”

Agencies around King County are gearing up for the severe weather — preparing to clear roads and adjust bus routes, for example — but leaders at Wednesday’s press conference acknowledged the ongoing pandemic will complicate some efforts, such as expanding emergency shelter for people without housing.

“Due to COVID-19’s ongoing impacts to the shelter system, capacity is severely limited for all of our providers, and it presents challenges to opening up multiple sites quickly,” said Jenny Howell, interim director of the City Human Services Department, especially for 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week service.”

Earlier this week the city opened a severe-weather shelter at Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion, which is operated by the Salvation Army and has capacity for up to 78 adults. “It’s an overnight facility only right now,” Howell said, “but we’re working to find a daytime operator, and I’m very optimistic that we will identify one.”

The shelter, which opens at 8 p.m. each evening, is scheduled to operate through Monday morning. 

On Thursday the city announced the opening of two co-ed, 24-hour emergency severe-weather shelters, at Garfield Community Center and Bitter Lake Community Center, which will also operate through Monday morning. Service animals will be allowed at both locations, and food and showers will be available. The Garfield shelter has capacity for 41 people, the city said, while Bitter Lake can accommodate 45.

King County has also opened an emergency winter-weather shelter at the Jefferson Day Center downtown, and officials said Thursday that agencies are partnering with local organizations to visit unsheltered communities, referring people to services and distributing emergency supplies such as blankets, gloves, and hats.

Three separate stormfronts could sweep into Seattle this week, said Curry Mayer, whom Durkan appointed late last year as director of the Office of Emergency Management. The first should hit Thursday, with a possible second storm Saturday that Mayer said could bring several inches of snow to the city. A third storm, Sunday evening, is likely to be a bit warmer, turning any accumulated snow to slush.

“The storms will all bring dangerously cold temperatures,” Mayer said, “so even if we don’t see a lot of accumulation, you can expect the weather to be exceptionally cold.”

To sign up for local emergency alerts from the city, residents can visit

Officials from four separate transit agencies spoke at Thursday’s press conference, explaining the steps being taken at the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), King County Metro, Sound Transit, and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to help keep traffic moving.

As with the pandemic, the best advice is to stay home.

“Winter weather is unpredictable, especially when snow starts falling quickly in this region,” said SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe. “So please, don’t make the trip if you don’t have to.”

Drivers who do venture out should plan ahead, be careful, and leave plenty of space on the road for others — especially snowplows, Zimbabwe said. Check your tires, put on chains if necessary, and bring blankets and a snack in case you get stuck.

As for public transit, officials encouraged riders to check routes through the Puget Sound Trip Planner or other online tools before departing. King County Metro, for example, will be posting updates to its Twitter account and its agency snow guide, available at

Because of social-distancing guidelines, buses will continue to operate at limited capacity. Sound Transit is also running less frequent light rail service, with trains coming about every 12 minutes during peak hours and every 15 minutes for most of the rest of the day.

“I remind people of this because, especially our exposed platforms, people are going to want to bundle up and make sure that they stay warm,” said Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff.

Rogoff also reminded riders to wear face masks, which are mandated under law on public transit. “We have very high mask usage now, 95 percent,” he said Thursday. “We need to get to 100 percent to keep everybody safe, so please wear your mask when traveling.”

Health authorities are now advising that people consider wearing two masks or a better-fitting single mask when in public to provide added protection against transmission of the virus.

Certain other vital services, such as food banks and meal programs, aren’t expected to be impacted by the cold weather, said Howell of the Human Services Department. Outreach and shelter services, however, are “severely limited.”

At Thursday’s press conference, reporter Erica Barnett of PubliCola asked Mayor Durkan about the status of a longer-term proposal to expand shelter services at area hotels, which could help shelter people from harsh winter weather. 

Durkan called the proposal “part of the broader plan,” replying that for now the City is focused on “trying to bring as many people inside as we can during this cold weather.”

“We know that there’s more people outside,” the mayor said, “so that’s why our strategies are to open up more shelter space and to bring them inside.”

Asked what residents could do to help ensure the city keeps running smoothly if winter storms do hit, Zimbabwe at SDOT said the best thing would be for people to keep sidewalks outside their homes clear and accessible.

“Foremost is shovel the sidewalk outside of your property,” he said, and “look out for neighbors that might not be able to shovel theirs. I think that really is the place where people can help the full community.”

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

Featured Image by Susan Fried (image edited by Emerald staff).

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