The Labors of Hercules

by Kevin D. Williamson
The politics of weather

Ever since the extraordinary events of 2005, during which we learned that the incompetence of the backward, corrupt, thieving public institutions of Louisiana was the fault of George W. Bush, who was ritually denounced for Baton Rouge’s inability to meet Katrina, weather has become a political subject. When New York City was insufficiently quick to respond to a 2010 snowstorm, Paul Krugman snidely described the situation as “Bloomberg’s Katrina.” He later thought better of that, not quite managing to apologize but acknowledging: “I shouldn’t have been so casual about the comparison to New Orleans, where so many people actually died.” Having a Nobel prize means never having to say you’re sorry.

I happened to be right in the middle of Bloomberg’s Katrina, and I enjoyed it. I live in lower Manhattan, within rotten-fruit-throwing distance of City Hall, and the snowplows took their time getting here. I walked down the middle of a traffic-free Broadway and noted with no great surprise that while there was angst and wailing in the halls of power and the pages of the New York Times, life seemed to be going on. Many shops and restaurants were open. People seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was a gentleman going about on snowshoes. It was an interruption, to be sure, but interruptions of the quotidian routine are not always unwelcome. It’s not the sort of thing you’d want to last for more than a day or two, but it is far from an emergency.

Don’t tell that to New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie, though, who declared a state of emergency in advance of yesterday’s snowstorm, which we apparently are expected to call “Hercules.” No doubt Governor Christie has Hurricane Sandy on the brain, and does not wish to wake up in the morning and read about “Christie’s Katrina” when a perfectly ordinary winter storm drops a perfectly ordinary amount of snow on New Jersey. On the other side of the Hudson, the New York Times, ever vigilant, reported: “As Snow Covers Northeast, New Mayor Faces His First Test.” Schoolchildren on Facebook began petitioning Bill de Blasio’s son to press his father for a snow day. The mayor set about tweeting photos of himself shoveling snow outside his home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, as the gentlemen of the Times allowed themselves a few clumsy similes: “A layer of snow coated roads and rooftops, front stoops and back gardens like thick cake icing.” As one observer pointed out, a few inches of snow in nice-guy Minnesota means getting up 30 minutes early to shovel the driveway, but in tough-guy New Jersey it’s a state of emergency.

One wonders if the political authorities know that winter comes on a regularly scheduled basis. I sympathize a little when there’s an unexpected ice storm in a place like Houston, which is not used to dealing with such things, or when a tornado drops out of the sky on some hapless prairie community (in 1970, an F5 tornado blew through my hometown and leveled the place), but in the Northeast, it snows every year. The whole point of New Yorkers’ rodentially subterranean transit life is to insulate commuters from surface conditions, and yet the subways can be thrown into chaos by snow upstairs, or by rain, while the regional trains carrying commuters home to Connecticut and Westchester County have been known to be disturbed by wet leaves. This seems to be a global phenomenon. After an unexpectedly heavy snowfall last year, Tokyo’s highly regarded, extremely efficient, and privately operated subway system, which carries nearly twice as many passengers each day as does the MTA’s network, experienced so many delays and problems that it almost resembled Brooklyn on a dry Saturday afternoon in the springtime.

The real sight to see is the deliverymen, shuttling pizzas and sandwiches and paneer tikka and bottles of whiskey around town. Somehow, this largely bicycle-based business manages to keep operating even when the mighty locomotives are sidelined.

You have to pick your fights, though: There was a great deal of panic before Hurricane Irene, which resulted in little more than a few hours of heavy rain for New York. But I had the good sense to be far away for Sandy.

Boldly setting aside Mayor de Blasio’s warning to stay indoors, I ventured out into the storm last night and again this morning. Here’s my two-part report: It was snowing; it had snowed. The line at my Starbucks was about half as long as usual, and I’m glad I have waterproof boots. But that’s about it. The only thing getting in my way as I tried to move about the city over the past few days was the fact that the police had blocked off my usual subway entrance because Bill Clinton was in town to swear in Mayor de Blasio.

There’s a lesson in there, somewhere.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.

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