By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Are we becoming a nation of blizzard wimps?

When living in Fairfax County, Va., during the 1990s (while I was working in the government), I remember being really amused by the practice of the public schools to announce school closings before the first snowflake even fell. As a Bostonian, I saw this as an example of just how terrified the Washington area was when dealing with snow. How did the school system know whether the snow would be bad enough to warrant a closing, or whether their snow plows would be able to deal with it in time?

Well, fast forward 15 years, and we have witnessed the Fairfax County-ization of America.

I am writing now in the middle of a major snow storm that has hit Boston. (I understand from Washington friends that this go-around, you guys got only a dusting -- unlike last year, when Boston escaped pretty much every snowstorm that created Washington's Snowmegeddon.) The snow started in the middle of the night last night -- it wasn't snowing yet when I came home from a late meeting around 11:30 p.m. -- and will continue through much of today.

And the joke is on us. Around mid-afternoon yesterday -- perhaps 12 hours before the snow started -- an email was sent to Kennedy School faculty and staff announcing that the Kennedy School would be closed today. At dinner, a faculty candidate told me that his flight back home for this morning had already been cancelled. Armed with this knowledge, I decided to call my airline -- I would have never thought of doing so otherwise -- to check about my own flight to London at 8 pm tonight. It was cancelled too – more than a day before the actual flight was to occur!

What has changed over these 15 years? I'm not sure. It is my impression, though I could well be wrong, that there has been a big increase in news reporting on the tracking of blizzards coming to the northeast from the Midwest and the mid-Atlantic region -- my perhaps imperfect memory is that TV news used to do this with hurricanes, but not with snowstorms. (Readers, is your memory similar or different?) People, including authorities making these kinds of decisions, might be quicker to conclude what the snow will be like further "downstream" based on experiences in areas hit earlier. This would be a "nationalization of American culture" story. Another possibility is that the forecasting abilities of the National Weather Service have improved, giving greater confidence to predictions of how bad a storm will be. Call this a government performance improvement story.

Then, finally, there is the wimp story. I think the older attitude in Boston was to wait for the snow to arrive, throw at it all the snow cleaning capacity we have, and see how much progress we've made. If after trying everything, the streets are impassable, then shut stuff down, but don't do it before you've tried. Have we started conceding defeat in advance?

Posted on Jan 12, 2011 at 12:09 PM


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