City Desk

Washington Gets Hysterical About Snow, and That’s OK

Definitely not yesterday's snow

The day after the snow day without much actual snow, Washington's getting it from all sides. The Post's Dan Zak blames the city's panicked reaction on residents "being the queeniest of drama queens." Zak's colleague, op-ed page writer and aspiring humorist Alexandra Petri, took to the streets to show just how little snow was sticking in an empty downtown Washington. National Journal's Matthew Cooper posited then-Mayor Marion Barry's absence during one 1987 blizzard inflicted a sort of post-traumatic snow disorder on the municipal psyche that still persists.

It's not just the hometown peanut gallery giving the city a hard time. Washingtonians are "weather wimps," according to the New York Daily News, which points out that Chicago managed to keep its schools open with a whopping nine inches on the ground. So why couldn't we?

Comparisons to other places are big with the rest of this set, too. Cooper praises the Bostonians' stiff-upper-lip approach to snow, and Zak imagines visiting Danes from the Faroe Islands amused by our panic. In Petri's video, Washington's snow response is held up unfavorably to its counterparts in New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Kansas.

There's still a lot to be explained about how the forecasting went so wrong. The Post's chief meteorologist is already calling it a "bust" for the paper's Capital Weather Gang. But if you believed the predictions, and at the time there was no reason not to, Washington was in for a storm that would be serious by the city's standards. And that's what the would-be snow stoics are missing, even though it's right in front of their balaclavas: Washington, on average, gets less snow than the places they hold up as models of snow-moving efficiency. When a snowstorm as big as the one yesterday's was forecast to be comes through, we're supposed to panic.

This shouldn't be difficult for Washington's weather critics to understand. Petri and Cooper both cite John F. Kennedy's quote about Washington as a city of northern charm and southern efficiency, which does contain the giveaway word "southern."

Still, for those who missed it: the average Chicago snow season sees more than 30 inches. Washington, on the other hand, averages 15.4 inches each winter. Of course Chicago—and Kansas, and New Jersey, and uh, the Faroe Islands—are better at dealing with snow. They have to be.

Early Wednesday morning, forecasters were still predicting 8 to 10 inches of snow. For perspective, Washington never saw more than eight inches in a single storm from 1967 to 1978 or from 1988 to 1995. In another time in Washington history, this would have been a once-in-a-decade storm. Preparing every year for a storm Washington doesn't get every year—or even every few years—would be a waste, as silly as Washington looked bracing yesterday bracing for a blizzard that never came. The District isn't capable of removing that much snow quickly, or dealing with it well, because we don't usually have to.

That doesn't mean the District would be paralyzed, or that the Department of Public Works would have resorted to flamethrowers. It just means it would have taken longer, and had more of an impact on city services, than it would in a city that has to be able to clear regularly clear nines inches just to survive the winter. Chicago's snow removal budget this year was $20.3 million for about 4,000 miles of roads in the city. D.C.'s is only $6.2 million a year, for about 1,500 miles of roads. That means Chicago has an extra $1,000 per mile to deal with snow—because they get more of it than we do.

Why the blindness to differences in snowfall? Some of this comes from transplanted northerners who expect snow removal to be just like it was at home (where there's also more snow). There's also the belief, last seen in Cindy Adams' New York Post column, that the nation's capital should be immune from the problems of every other city. But there's something unique to snow complaining that I haven't figured out. After all, after the 2011 temblor, San Francisco didn't mock Washington for not earthquake-proofing its buildings.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • TM

    I don't disagree with your point generally, but the budget numbers undermine your point. Chicago spends about $5000 per mile for snow removal and we pay about $4000 per mile. Doesn't that seem too high? Shouldn't we be spending significantly less per mile? I realize there are fix costs, but damn we're spending 80% per mile even though we get half the amount of snow they do. And I think saying we get "half" is over stating it. It's been years since we've got enough snow at one time that it needed to be removed.

  • BW

    The problem is DC is full of snow wimps and drama queens. My first winter here multiple people commented on how it was amazing I could walk so fast when it was snowing. And this was just during a dusting, before anything froze to the ground or got icy.

    Yes, you don't see consistently high snowfall totals or see it consistently often throughout winter, especially when compared to Chicago, Minneapolis, etc., but this isn't the tropics. It stays fairly chilly from November to March, and with that, it shouldn't be out of the question that it may snow here or there.

  • Megan

    I agree with your point generally, but to state without proof that Kansas should obviously be prepared for more snow than DC is ridiculous. While far-western Kansas is impacted by the Rockies and has an average snowfall near 20", the vast majority of Kansas (and basically every part with much population) averages between 14-16", about the same as DC. As a native Kansan, I always find it perplexing that people seem to associate Kansas with the upper midwest. Kansas is way closer geographically to Texas than Minnesota with a climate that is pretty similar to DC.

  • the time

    This is where the car has gone off the road:

    "and at the time there was no reason not to"

  • Pees

    Funny that the people calling out the "dramatic" response to snow are wildly dramatic in doing so. What's not dramatic about over-reacting to someone else's reaction to a fucking weather forecast?

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  • maktoo

    AMEN, brother. We rarely get it, we don't budget for it, and yes - we should rightfully be perturbed when it arrives.