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Wild winter tests Vancouver ahead of Olympics

The last two weeks of December were a winter nightmare for Vancouver, but the Canadian city says it's a great learning experience ahead of the 2010 Olympics.
Winter Weather
Snow blankets the beach and palm trees at English Bay in Vancouver, Canada, on Dec. 24.Jonathan Hayward / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thousands of airline passengers stranded. Roads impassable because of snow. Power failures by the dozen.

The last two weeks of December were a winter nightmare for Vancouver — huge dumps of snow followed by rain, heavy slush and flooding. All over the city, people are griping about the toll storm after storm has taken on their holiday season.

They're also asking another question: What if this happens during the 2010 Winter Olympics?

Vancouver airport, transit and city officials say they're using the recent storms as a learning opportunity.

With 400,000 passengers passing through Vancouver in the last week of December on 5,000 flights, the current volume of airport traffic is close to what it will be during the games, said Don Ehrenholz, vice president of operations for Vancouver International Airport.

He promises improvement by the time the games start.

"In our planning for 2010 we are planning that there will be a snowstorm of a fairly large magnitude at the worst possible time — either at the very first couple of days or the very last day or two, which is one of the more difficult times for getting people out on time," Ehrenholz said.

Extra equipment ordered
"We are definitely planning for those circumstances. We have already ordered a couple of extra pieces of snow-clearing equipment for 2010 and we have already been working with the airlines to improve the deicing process . . . to improve that capacity."

The city's transit system will be different in 2010, with more buses and a new subway line that won't be affected by weather because most of it runs underground, said Ken Hardie, a spokesman for TransLink, which handles public transit in B.C.'s Lower Mainland. Car-free lanes on venue routes also mean less chance of snow-related traffic congestion.

The SkyTrain elevated rail system has been shut down in conditions far less severe than those in Vancouver the last month, Hardie said.

"I understand that the type of weather that we've had ... is a one-in-10-year event," he said. "Let's hope we've gotten it out of our system for another 10 years."

Events will be divided between the area in and around Vancouver, which is known more for rain than snow, and the ski resort of Whistler, which usually has plenty of the white stuff each winter. The communities are connected by Highway 99, also known as the Sea-to-Sky highway — a narrow, winding route with plenty of steep hills.

Before the Beijing Olympics last summer, Chinese authorities were so afraid of rain disrupting the opening ceremony they experimented with cloud seeding.

Al Wallace is regional director of Meteorological Services Canada, which is providing weather services for the 2010 Olympics. He said a weather-control project is not in the works for 2010, mostly because it hasn't been proved to actually work.

Preparing to 'deal with the worst'
Vancouver's Olympic organizing committee acknowledges that while it has command over virtually every aspect of the games, the weather is one thing it simply can't control — even if it is one of the most critical elements of staging a successful Winter Olympics.

"It could either work with you or really work against you," said Tim Gayda, vice president of sport for the organizing committee, known as VANOC. "Right from the get-go, we've always planned to deal with the worst."

When the games were awarded to Vancouver in 2003, Environment Canada and Meteorological Services were immediately brought on board. Weather stations have been installed at each venue and along the Sea-to-Sky corridor to help monitor everything from wind speed to moisture.

VANOC and Environment Canada also have been putting together scenarios where they've taken the weather in past Februarys and used it to determine how the games would have been affected if they were held on those days.

In addition to possible delays, the committee found that signage and seating at outdoor venues would be severely challenged by the weight of about 15 inches of snow. Vancouver has had close to 3 feet of snow this month.

There are also the challenges of keeping volunteers' morale high when it's cold and wet and mobilizing volunteers in the middle of the night to clear snow from venues.

This winter's test events will provide the final dry (or wet) run for weather issues. All the forecasters who will work at the games will be at the test-event venues assisting judges, coaches and organizers.

But planning can go only so far. Gayda said his team has its own approach, on top of meticulous planning.

"We just pray," he said.