When Did Emergency Become Snow’s Last Name?
January 26, 2016
I returned early from a conference in California to which I had committed myself. I did that because Bread Furst was robbed.
Two men invaded our space and beat Jesse McCormick with a pistol.
It was in the middle of the day and brazen. It was awful. I wanted to be here and left San Francisco the moment my obligations ended there. I arrived 13 hours before the snowstorm.
Our staff met that morning to talk about the storm even before I arrived. By that time Metro had peremptorily announced it would close for three days. A three-day closing even before the first snowflake fell? Our public transporation, our bus and subway system closing because streets above would be snowy?
I understand closing pieces of the city when closing is made necessary by the weather. But I don’t understand what we, the city of Washington now do: Close virtually everything in anticipation of difficult weather.
“This is not a storm that anyone should take lightly, and I would urge all residents to plan to get to a safe place before the storm arrives Friday afternoon,” said Metro General Manager/CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld.
I don’t believe that anyone was taking the storm lightly and I realize that Mr. Wiedefeld is new to his job. But surely he knows that our busses and subway are not a discretionary service. The people who make the city run depend on busses and the subway. Those who work in stores and restaurants and hospitals commute by bus and train. Shutting down public transportation shuts down our city.
Our general manager, Eun Yim, anticipating the snow and the city’s shut-down, rented rooms at the Day’s Inn down the block and she offered them to staff who wanted to stay. Four did.
Others of the staff who live within a mile or so walked to work.
Thus we were able to stay open during the storm; and because we paid incredible sums for Uber rides we opened on Monday fully staffed.
When I was a child my family lived on West North Avenue in Baltimore across the street from Gwynns Falls Park. Our elementary school was a mile away.
During winter snow days we hoped our school would close. It rarely did and so we would dress up, put on galoshes, wool hats, and mittens and go to the corner to wait for the streetcar. In general snow was fun for kids.
For grown-ups too life went on during snowstorms. People were often late to work but they went to work. Businesses opened. People drove.
It is true that cars were heavier then; perhaps they had better traction than cars do now. And during snowstorms people put chains on their tires. Chains were a lot of trouble and got replaced by snow tires with deep treads and metal studs.
We had two sets of tires, summer and winter then. Now many of us have lighter cars and snow tires have given way to all-weather tires that are a compromise between summer and winter.
In addition, of course, people live far afield and travel long distances to work. Children don’t walk to school any longer.
But still Washington seems unusually timid to me. Cities more northern that ours cope better with snowfall. I know they have larger snow removal budgets and more equipment but I think they cope better because for them snow remains part of life.
Not here. In Washington we traumatize ourselves. Last winter the simple forecast of snow was enough to get schools canceled and the Federal government closed. The threat was sufficient. I found that particularly outrageous. I was offended when weather forecasters forgave themselves when the storms they puffed up abruptly deflated by explaining how difficult it is to forecast here.
At least this time the snow came. But look at what we did in anticipation!
We shut down the city. We closed even the federal government. Is the federal government a non-essential service?
No postal delivery – well, we privatized that. But that can’t be the reason. Chipotle was open and it’s private.
The DC government was closed but gas stations were open.
Is Grover Norquist right?
I am pretty certain that the Pentagon and National Security Agency went on working during the storm. But the rest of us conspired to make a winter storm a danger nearly as terrifying as ISIS.
We are doing this to ourselves. When storms begin to form we are told minute-by-minute about their rising threat. We follow the forecasts obsessively as television and the Internet burn with news. As a storm approaches we are pulled into near-frenzy. We predict closings and then impose them. We cancel thousands of airline flights.
We are redefining what constitutes an emergency. Before the storm hit the city Washington’s mayor declared a disaster; so did the Commonwealth of Virginia. And Maryland’s governor warned people to stock up in preparation for a week of isolation.
(He must have been brought up on the prairie.)
We were not shut down by the storm. We shut ourselves down in anticipation of it. We left only the duration of the shutdown to be determined by how much snow actually fell.
We are simply accepting a redefinition of emergency. If emergencies are now awful things that might happen, are we now going to live in a perpetual state of emergency?
I know I am an old-timer, a fogey, but it wasn’t like this before.
“The actions we are taking today are all in the interest of our customers’ and employees’ safety, and will help us return to service once the storm passes and the snow is cleared,” Mr. Wiedefeld said.
No, that’s not so. Metro trains were not sheltered during the storm as he promised; and even two days after it ended only fractions of service were restored. Two days after the storm ended even the few busses that ran were given a 5 pm curfew.
Mr. Wiedefeld explained that Metro has consistently promised more than it was able to deliver and he wants to change that culture. He did not want to make promises he couldn’t keep.
But of course if you promise nothing, that is a promise you will always be able to keep.
The timorous response of Metro contrasted sharply with the transportation systems of other eastern cities and with Amtrak that continued its service through the storm.
New York schools opened on Monday. Washington schools did not and Arlington County announced that its schools will be closed until Thursday, five days after the snow ended.
Why not open the schools and require students who miss days to make up work?
Jesse was pistol-whipped a week ago and has 18 stitches in his head. He lives in Alexandria where the Metro wasn’t running; but with a concussion and drugs for it he returned to work yesterday.
As for the return of our public services, we’ll just have to wait and see.