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 7:26 PM

Reader Comments

Fri, Jan 28, 2011

Flights get cancelled far in advance for two reasons- the first is, they don't have a warm fuzzy that the plane will be available, because the previous flight it was used for is expected to be delayed. The fleets are a LOT smaller, with many mothballed in the desert. Second is the reduced headroom in 'the system'.Now that planes are near-full routinely, if a flight is cancelled at the last minute, they simply don't have available seats on later flights to accomodate people. They would rather do long-lead rebooking before people get to the airport. I don't like it either, but I do understand it.

Fri, Jan 14, 2011 Patricia Maryland

I think that another factor is that technology, news-only channels, and better long-range weather prediction put together with the proclivity for many to not wait for the evening news has helped to nationalize many things, weather is merely one of them. Time was that the local weatherman actually predicted the local weather; not a national weather is predicted using computers. So now, we can see the weather when it enters the country in the West and the computers can better predict how it will move across the country. We here in the Metro DC area knew that it would be windy for the past two days because the weather system that went up the coast from Georgia would spin up in New England causing gusty winds here.

Thu, Jan 13, 2011 Gorgonzola Wash, DC/Cambridge

As a denizen of both places, I do think the wimpiness has extended north to Boston. As for Washington, although it is the suburban county and DC govts that have wimped out by closing schools for little or no reason, they are conditioned by the nambi-pambi's in the Federal government. If you charted the crispness of Federal decision-making and the willingness of Federal executives to take necessary risks, you would find that they have been plunging down since, oh, about 1970. That's why dithering in government, layering of the bureaucracy, and neutering of former strongholds such as OMB are making us more and more ineffective and unable to meet so many goals, foreign and domestic, including IT management.

Thu, Jan 13, 2011 Don Arlington, VA

Grew up in snowbelt along PA sectiion of Lake Erie. Typically get 100 inches of snow a year. Record is over 200 inches of snow. Can get 100 inches of snow in one month before lake freezes (i.e., lake effect snow). Really value skilled workmen who used to plow our streets. Today workforce is not so skilled or well-versed as to how to apply available resources efficiently. Plus today citizen drivers out there on almost bald tires, inconsiderate of other drivers, and don't know how to drive on snow or ice --- slower is better than faster! As result, everyone in a hurry to get home and hibernate. Biggest threat to America isn't Al Qaeda, it is Old Man Winter coupled with inefficiency and ignorance.

Wed, Jan 12, 2011 Joel Philadelphia

Up until last year, out office hadn't closed for weather once in ten years. In the last 365 days, we've closed four times. Because we're not able to work remotely -- for a number of reasons, none of them very good -- I had to go into work for a few hours before lunch. The roads and sidewalks were plowed and shoveled before 9am. But the effect -- in my circumstance -- of closing the office and ultimately not equipping employees to work remotely with even basic VPN capability is pretty substantial given that over the next few days we have all-day video conference strategy meetings, for which we need to be fully prepared. I appreciate the days off as much as the next person, but a day off should not mean a lost day of productivity in a time of year where that really matters and a time in history where technology can easily sidestep the snowdrifts.

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