Roughly one million families in the Eastside and the greater Seattle area lost power at approximately 10:00 p.m. on Thursday, December 14. Hundreds of thousands were without power over the weekend and tens of thousands may not have their power restored for days.
It was the area's worst storm in over a decade. In the storm's wake, entire suburban neighborhoods migrated to upscale, downtown hotels where they roughed it over the long weekend.
"If you're going to be a refugee, I can think of worse places," said Lakewood resident and windstorm refugee Pat McVee, who was staying at the Sheraton Hotel with his wife, Rose.
It was 10:00 p.m. on Saturday and the Sheraton's Gallery bar was crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with nicely dressed business people. In the lobby, families in snappy casual attire (think Ralph Lauren goes sailing) lounged, caught up with neighbors, and snacked on bar food.
"It's like a rich man's Superdome," said Pat McVee, taking another bite of his BLT. Rose McVee dipped into a delicious-looking artichoke-cheese spread the approximate size of her face. "But it's hard to compare ourselves to people that are really in dire straits," Pat McVee added.
Several blocks away, a handful of designer dogs on designer leashes were being patiently walked around the lobby of the Westin Hotel while packs of suburban children played a screamier, more elaborate version of tag. The bar was full. The lobby was full. The restaurant was closed. ("Get out," one exhausted waiter told me, quickly adding a "please.") There were no available seats left except on the floor.
"At least two other families in our neighborhood ended up here," said windstorm refugee Richard Eastern of Bellevue. He and his wife, along with their three young children, had been staying at the Westin since Friday. Eastern's family had been camping out in their master bedroom the night of the storm. "In the morning, there were trees sitting on houses, leaning on power lines, one tree split a car in two," he said of their neighborhood. "One tree even hit our kid's room. We were powerless. Our house was freezing cold. That's when we decided to leave."
The Eastern family, like many other uprooted families, viewed their displacement as a spontaneous vacation. They took the kids shopping downtown, out to see Charlotte's Web, to ride the carousel in Westlake Center.
"The kids love it," Eastern said. "We weren't sure we were going to make it downtown to the carousel this year."
The Easterns received news late Saturday night that power had been restored in their neighborhood. Their minivacation was cut short, a development that prompted feelings of relief and dread.
"We just want to go home," Eastern said. "The quarters are really cramped here; the hotel is packed."
But going home presented its own challenges—their children are afraid of the house poststorm.
"My oldest son is afraid to sleep in his room," Eastern said. "You look out his window and all you can see is a tree pressing against the pane."
Girmai Medhane, a hotel employee, was eager to see things return to normal. The exhausted bellhop hasn't seen this much activity during the Christmas season in the five years he's worked at the Westin.
"It's Christmas, so we have a lot of guys who have taken time off work," said Medhane. "Those of us left here are rushing around, working double shifts—especially the room cleaners. We always have a pretty full house, but mostly they're business people, not families. Families are harder to take care of, especially families with their dogs, cats, even birds. It's like a zoo. It's hard on the employees."
While managers at the Westin refused to comment on the hotel's capacity, Medhane said it is stuffed with guests. He described never-ending check-in lines and jammed elevators.
"If you're lucky enough to get a room," he said, "it takes an hour to get to it."
Mr. and Mrs. Miller, a distinguished-looking Redmond couple with perfect hair, and their two sons braved the long lines at the Westin Saturday to obtain their basic necessities: "food, warmth, and Starbucks."
While their home was not damaged by the storm, Miller said that unlike many of their neighbors, their house does not have a generator. Furthermore, he's not interested in buying one. "It's been three years since our last power loss," he said. "We don't need a generator. It's simple enough to grab the kids, get a hotel, and have some fun."
A few blocks away at the Hotel Andra, front-desk agent Jennifer Prytz took a break. It was 11:00 p.m. and her lobby was finally empty, even though the hotel restaurant, Lola, was still crowded and cooking.
"Usually we're at 50 percent capacity this time of year," she told me. "We've been at 100 percent capacity the last two days. There have been nonstop phone calls from more families asking about rooms, and we can't even recommend places to go—everything's packed."
Despite the long lines and cramped quarters, children played happily in the lobby while adults made friendly wagers on who would get their power back first. The scene resembled a block party, minus the block.
"We actually had a block party on Friday night," Miller said of his Redmond neighborhood. "It had been planned for weeks, and several houses with generators hosted, so we went ahead with it and had a blast. Then we looked at each other and said, 'Okay, now it's time to get out of here.'"