Mayor Ted Wheeler, speaking at a newly reopened temporary homeless shelter today.
Mayor Ted Wheeler, speaking at a newly reopened temporary homeless shelter today. Dirk VanderHart

Regarding the icy, rutted mess that Portland's streets have become in the last week, Mayor Ted Wheeler won't defend the city's response. But he's not ready to throw Portland's winter weather playbook out yet, either.

"I'm not here to make excuses," Wheeler said today, addressing reporters after the unveiling of a 100-bed temporary homeless shelter downtown. "I have been deeply humbled by my first 2.5 weeks in office."

Reflecting on frustrations he said he's heard again and again about the city's response to the snowfall that's caused "too many" road and schools closures, Wheeler says he's looking to ask five questions about Portland's plans for such events.

•does the city have enough workers clearing ice and snow?
•does it have the right equipment?
•are the right procedures in place?
•has the city done a good job communicating the situation to the public?
•can Portland work better with other jurisdictions?

In coming days—once the freezing rain expected today and possible flooding in coming days are past—Wheeler's pledging to work with Transportation Commissioner Dan Saltzman to answer those questions.

"That's my commitment," he said this afternoon.

Just what that study would look like isn't clear. Wheeler said he'd be transparent about the process, but hadn't decided whether to release a formal study to the public, or whether to bring in outside consultants to help vet Portland's system.

The city's been criticized by some in recent days for its reticence to use road salt common in more easterly states—instead using a liquid containing salty magnesium chloride to help prevent and get rid of ice. The city did experiment with road salt in the last week, and was reportedly not convinced it would work better.

Wheeler's not committing to any specific changes, though he said he's interested in continuing to experiment with salt. He acknowledged that there's a balancing act involved in deciding whether to stock up on fighting wintry weather when resources are limited and snowfall like this is infrequent.

"Let’s learn from it and let’s pick up from there," Wheeler said. "We are still in the weather emergency. We are not done yet."

He was speaking as city and county officials announced they were reopening a temporary homeless shelter in a disused commercial building at SW 4th and Washington. The building was opened as a shelter space nearly a year ago (the so-called "Peace Shelter"). It was subsequently closed amid plans to sell the building to another company. Now, city officials have worked a new arrangement with the current and future owners of the space. It's opening tonight again, and will remain available until May.

At the press conference, Jordan Menashe, whose Menashe Properties is selling the building to another company, called on other land owners to help out.

"There are many, many more vacancies downtown," he said. "Everybody has them. We've seen them."

At least four homeless people have died this month because of the city's atypically frigid temperatures. On Monday, Willamette Week reported a newborn infant born to a homeless mother might have been the fifth person to die of exposure, though the medical examiner has ruled the baby wasn't alive at birth.

Wheeler, in his comments, alluded to "five people consumed by the cold." Asked by the Mercury about that number, he acknowledged he wasn't certain how the infant had died.