Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Where's the Line Between Cautious and Snow Wimp?

The United States Federal Government is shut down for the third straight day today due to snow.  Washington, DC is often the butt of jokes when it snows.  They always seem surprised and completely unable to cope with even minor snowfall.  Shortly after President Obama took office he expressed great surprised that his daughters' school had closed due to "a little ice."  In short, people in the Northeast and Upper Mid-west tend to think that people in Washington are snow wimps.

Today, Washington is in the grips of the second huge snow storm of the week.  This is, by any measure, an actually large storm, not just a Washington-is-hysterical storm.  They're getting up to 16 inches on top of a couple of feet they got over the weekend.  In addition, there are high winds, making this not just a storm but a blizzard.  In response, among other things, Washington declared that it was too dangerous for plows to be on the roads this morning, and halted snow removal.

Growing up, as I did, in New England, my first reaction was to use this news as more affirmation that Washington just doesn't know how to deal with snow.  I certainly cannot remember a time when plows in Boston, Pittsburgh or Ann Arbor (the three areas where I've lived the longest) were told to stand down because it was too dangerous.  It becomes a point of pride for people from highly snowy areas that "a little snow" doesn't stop us.  How can it be too dangerous to plow?

This is really not very fair to Washington for two reasons.  The first is that this is, objectively, a pretty bad storm.  Washington is not the only jurisdiction to have pulled over its plows today.  The fact that I don't remember this happening where I was living doesn't mean it didn't, and it certainly doesn't mean it wouldn't if this same storm happened to hit literally close to home.  I can certainly remember storms where there was concern that there was literally no place to put plowed snow, and ones where the snow was so deep that plows could not easily navigate through it.

The other reason is more complicated.  The public works department of every city has to decide whether it is safe to send out their plows.  For most storms, regardless of where you live, this is pretty straightforward.  It's unlikely, however, that this is the only storm in the history of the country to at least spur the conversation about whether it is too windy to plow.  Part of this decision does have to do with how used to snow the jurisdiction is.  What seems like a "bad storm" in Washington is not necessarily a bad storm in New Hampshire.  But there's more to it than that.

In every jurisdiction, when they make the decision about whether to send out the plows, they also have to take into consideration that not sending out the plows will have a serious impact on the residents.  Being stuck at home during a snow storm isn't just an issue of closing schools, it's also an issue of public safety.  The longer folks are snowed in, the more likely there are to be medical emergencies, and those emergencies will have trouble getting to the hospital.  If this is a one-time, unusual instance, it may well be a risk worth taking given the risk of sending out the plows. 

If you live someplace where you are making this decision not twice a year but two or three times a week throughout the winter months, however, your decision is never truly an isolated one.  If you decide not to send out the plows today, you are also setting the precedent that you will not send out the plows anytime there is a storm like this one.  That's fine if the storm really is an unusual event, but if it's going to happen a lot there's going to be a problem.  Washington can afford to shut down for a week.  If Boston does, it's running the risk that that week will keep coming, week after week.

So, does that mean that Washingtonians really aren't snow wimps?  Probably not.  It does mean, however, that today isn't necessarily and example of it.  Everyone has to assess whether risks are worth it every day.  It's OK for us to come up with different answers.


Colleen said...

The only good reason I can come up with to not send the plows out is that the people doing the plowing aren't experienced enough to do it safely....NOT that it's too dangerous for plows.

So, yeah, I remain firmly of the opinion that Washington is a snow wimp.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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