Seattle’s love-hate relationship with rain


A sign inside a Seattle supermarket

Long-standing sign inside a Seattle supermarket

Here in Seattle we’re finishing up what is the wettest March in the history of city record-keeping. It’s dry and even sunny today. But for the previous 30 days we’ve had 9.44 inches, more than 2½ times the March average of 3.72 inches. And that was after a February with 6.11 inches, nearly double that month’s norm of 3.70 inches, and something like the seventh-wettest February on record.

The way Seattle tries to minimize its rain as a way of attracting visitors is rather amusing. VisitSeattle, a nonprofit marketing group that used to be called Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, still has this rather defensive language on its web site below a headline reading “Rain or Sun, Seattle Shines”:

It’s been said that Seattleites will exaggerate about how much it rains in order to deter visitors from moving to their enchanting city. In reality, Seattle gets less rain than New York, Miami and dozens of other U.S. cities.

Left unsaid, of course, is the fact that Seattle gets more rain than thousands of other U.S. cities. That may be why the “Seattle Annual Rainfall Comparison Table” on VisitSeattle.org compares Seattle with just five other cities–tellingly, none on the West Coast, like, say, hated rival San Francisco (which, for the record, gets only 20.78 inches annually).

I think it fair to say that VisitSeattle is numerically challenged, at least when it comes to measuring rain. There’s a month-by-month table showing “average monthly maximum rainfall.”  (I have no idea what the word “maximum” means in this context.) By my math, the sum of the 12 entries is 36.194 inches. But the total at the bottom of the table is 36.16 inches–a different number, and one that is less. Moreover, both are more than 1.2 inches less than the 37.4 inches listed on that separate “rainfall comparison” table.

I guess you can take your pick.

The massive publicity afforded the tragic landslide on March 22 near Oso, an hour’s drive north of Seattle, is sure to focus new attention to the precipitation upon Western Washington. Although news reports suggest the landslide was a known disaster waiting to happen, there is little doubt the excess March rains hastened the process. As I pointed out here last week, Seattle itself isn’t immune to such events. Since 1890, more than 1,500 landslides have taken place within the city limits–on average, about one a month.

In the nearly three years since becoming New To Seattle, I find that Seattleites have a love-hate relationship with the rain. On one hand, particularly given the massive snow and below-zero Polar Express episodes that afflicted much of the rest of the country this past winter, the Seattle rain–which connotes much milder weather despite a northern latitude–looked pretty good by comparison. Many locals are generally and genuinely appreciative of the life-giving property of rain.

On the other hand, its almost daily persistence over more than half the year–roughly, from Columbus Day in October to July 4–has some residents swearing like Samuel L. Jackson’s memorable comment about omnipresent reptiles in the movie, “Snakes On A Plane.” Two years ago, even the newly crowned Miss Seattle, Jean-Sun Hannah Ahn, got caught non-profanely tweeting out, “Ugh can’t stand cold rainy Seattle.”

As I wrote here last year, people in Seattle tend not to dress for the rain, almost pretending the wet stuff doesn’t exist. They even get car washes in the rain. Yet in my experience, at least, they defensively go out of their way to warn newcomers about future bad weather, which, given many of the areas I’ve lived in–Houston, Philadelphia and New York–really isn’t so bad.

Clearly, most Seattleites don’t visit VisitSeattle.org. But then again, they’re already here, and spending money.

Follow William P. Barrett’s work on Twitter by clicking here.

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One Response to Seattle’s love-hate relationship with rain

  1. Glum About Gloom says:

    I grew up in Seattle and moved away in my 30’s. The rain was nothing compared to the cloudy days. I think Seattle is at the top of the list for cities with the most cloudy days. I remember us all joking about feeling the Seasonal Affective Disorder by the time February rolled around. I remember having light boxes to try to combat the gloom until the sun finally showed up consistently in July. I remember the heavy, gloomy feeling of slogging through weeks at a time of not seeing the sun even once. It was a huge factor in why I moved away and a huge reason I’d have trouble moving back though there’s a lot that I love about Seattle.

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