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Snow Competence: Why D.C. Can’t Handle Bad Weather

DC shuts down during minor weather events. Is it weak character? Media self-obsession?

“The only thing worse than DC snow panics are people saying that where they come from no one panics over anything less than 17 feet of snow,” declares Sonny Bunch. He added, “We get it, dude. People in Pa., Ohio, ND, Buffalo, etc. are super awesome at dealing with something DC doesn’t get much of. Cool story.”

It would be a great point if there had been literally any snow accumulation on the roads in my northern Virginia city Monday morning before school and other government-run operations were canceled for the day. The shelves at area stores had been cleared days beforehand, in anticipation of such precipitous precipitation. It’s not that DC can’t handle 17 feet of snow. It’s that it can’t handle 1/8 inch of snow either.

Let’s get the caveats out of the way. At church on Sunday, when some new arrivals from Indiana and Ohio marveled at the snow panic, I explained that some of it is legitimate. Snow is rare here, which means the snow removal crews lack the expertise they had back in Colorado, where I spent 14 winters. After a huge snow storm in December 2009, I saw a snowplow dump snow into the intersection near our house (we lived on Capitol Hill in D.C.) until it was impassable. The less sense it made, the more he did it, until we were more or less trapped.

The ignorance extends to drivers. My Colorado cousin Lance had the misfortune of visiting the area on business a couple years back. He was in McLean, stuck for hours in bad traffic. He noticed that some drivers had just gotten out of their vehicles and begun walking. They didn’t pull their cars over, they just left them in the road. I’ve seen such selfish car abandonment multiple times. And even my rather advanced snow removal skills weren’t a match for a buried 1996 Honda Civic during one big storm. I’d been keeping it clear of snow but each pass of the snow plow buried it. And when you’re dealing with wet snow and nowhere to put it, it’s far more challenging than a simple driveway clearing in the Rockies.

There are also the power outages. Due to issues ranging from corruption to incompetence, area utilities have failed to protect users from routine power outages during seasonal storms. It’s hard to open up for school when your school has no electricity.

And yet

Even with all of these caveats, what happens in the D.C. area is ridiculous and should be mocked. I in no way exaggerate that it typically took at least a foot of snow to delay school an hour or two in the school district I attended south of Denver. And with many feet of snow falling in Douglas County each year, a delay was the likelier response to weather events. Sometimes it was too cold to get the buses running. How cold? I don’t remember, but last Thursday the high temperature for the day was 5 degrees Fahrenheit (low of -10 degrees Fahrenheit) and school was held.

In general, winter weather was something that we learned to deal with. We learned how to drive in it — even as teenagers. We learned how to stay warm while out in it. We learned how to pack provisions in case we were stranded. We learned to be self-reliant and independent.

When my children’s school was canceled on Monday, there was no snow on the roads. Full stop. No snow. Roads were wet, however, with melting ice and snow.

One of the other parents at my children’s school was teasing our community for canceling school. He wrote on Facebook, “34 degrees! Ice melting! Better cancel school… #WeatherWimps.” One of his friends responded, “You know they would have been hung out to dry if we went to school and a bus had been in an accident. The people who make that decision rarely win!!”

The worst thing about it is that she’s right. If any bad thing had happened to any student, there’s a non-insignificant chance in our area that his or her parent would sue. There are communities where dangerous weather conditions are responded to with increased vigor and then there are communities where slightly negative weather conditions are responded to with lawsuits. I used to live in the former and now I live in the latter. The difference is palpable. It’s not about 17 feet of snow, Sonny Bunch, it’s about self-reliance, endurance and hard work. And how to cultivate these traits.

Blame the media

Another problem is the way the media whip people into a frenzy. Every reporter loves to cover breaking news events. Weather generates tons of viewers, readers and page views. But the concentration of the media in the Northeast corridor distorts normal responses to weather events.

It’s not that the national media don’t cover weather events outside of the NY-DC corridor. They do. They definitely do. But compare the coverage of the fairly minor storm we’re experiencing now with, say, the 1,000-year floods in Tennessee in 2010, the tornadoes of 2011, flooding in Western states this past summer. My mother knows every time a smattering of snow hits D.C., because it’s national news. Big snows outside of D.C. and New York never generate commensurate coverage. That’s because reporters are self-obsessed (guilty!). This shouldn’t be encouraged. The media should be mocked mercilessly for this self-obsession and distortion of national news.

Not all the media are so ridiculous about snow storms. KUSA-TV (Denver) news anchor Kyle Clark chastised viewers last month for sending in boring pictures of snow accumulation. His fantastic on-air editorial (which ends with a mic drop, if you can believe it) encourages viewers to get more creative with their picture taking. It’s no coincidence that he was one of the few reporters in the country to manage a tough interview with President Obama with substantive questions. A media that cowers in terror of a dusting of snow is probably not well suited to hold government officials accountable.

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