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Why Can’t D.C. Handle Winter Weather?

Today’s Morning Jolt, now in subscribers’ e-mailboxes, also explores a topic that has dominated my life for the past few days: risk-averse school districts’ keeping kids at home for the whole day whenever the forecast calls for even a light snow:

Washington-Area Schools to Close until Spring, as a Precaution

At some point, you turn into your grandparents and begin complaining that you had to walk to school in the snow, uphill both ways, compared to these spoiled whippersnappers today.

Yuppie Acres and the surrounding school districts in Northern Virginia chose to close Monday and Tuesday. Monday had some ice, but the roads were salted, sanded, plowed, and clear by midmorning; Tuesday had snowfall ranging from one-half an inch to three inches.

The light-blue areas are what are commonly called the “wimp zone.”

We’re being warned that Wednesday morning may feature a “hard freeze.” My kids may never go back to school.

Frosty the Mostly Slushman.

Each year, it seems like the threshold for closure and cancellation dips a little. “Sure, it’s not a lot of snow, but the forecast says it will fall during rush hour!” “We don’t want the kids to get to school and then have to send everyone home at midday!” “The main roads are salted, but some of the side roads aren’t!” “The buses are harder to maneuver if there’s any accumulation on the roads!” (As you can see above, Tuesday’s snow didn’t really stick anywhere except the grass.)

It wasn’t just the local schools; the federal government closed its offices, too. Last winter also featured widespread precautionary closings for a snowstorm that never arrived:

In addition to the closing of federal offices and schools, some businesses decided to close up shop early as well, citing the impending weather (that didn’t come for many).

That has restarted the debate over whether or not D.C. is “tough enough” to deal with snow, especially by the end of the day, when there was nary a dusting on most parts of the District.

The main question: did we overreact?

“My sons missed school yesterday and it rained, and it was just a waste of time,” Fairfax County resident Divina Small said. “They are back to school today, and I hope winter is officially over.”

In fact, we’re always strong competitors for the national championship of inability to cope with difficult weather:

The 2012 Farmers’ Almanac puts the D.C. area ahead of cities such as L.A., New York, Atlanta and Chicago for places where weather can shut down everyday life.

Farmers’ Almanac managing editor Sandi Duncan says the recent earthquake and hurricane are good examples, but the “snowmageddon” winter of 2009 and 2010 helped D.C. earn its title.

What the heck is wrong with this area? (Okay, that’s a long list.) Why are we so terrified by the same middling snowstorms that come almost every winter? (Snowmaggeddon was a genuine two-feet-or-more blizzard.) The local departments of transportation have actually gotten good at pre-treating and sanding and salting the roads. The plow crews seem to get out early and do thorough jobs. Businesses remain open. But somehow our local school administrators are more jittery than a Belfast valet, as terrified of risk as Walter Peck of the EPA. (I know, I know, second Ghostbusters reference of the morning.)

I realize I’m echoing an assessment from President Obama from shortly after he took office:

“My children’s school was canceled today, because of what?” an incredulous Obama asked Wednesday before a meeting. “Some ice?” He laughed.

“In fact, my seven year old pointed out that [in Chicago] you’d go outside for recess on a day like this.”

In response, Eugene Robinson insisted bad weather is different here:

Washington, unlike Chicago, is situated at a meteorological and geological borderline. The nation’s capital is where north meets south and piedmont meets coastal plain. Chicago is where north meets farther north and flat water meets flatter land. These distinctions have consequences.

Chicago is far enough north that winter precipitation is likely to be pure snow, and if it’s snowing on the Northside, it’s almost surely snowing on the Southside as well. Washington’s winter storms tend to bring a bit of everything, depending on where you live — snow, rain, sleet, freezing rain. And, yes, ice. The streets can be fine around the White House and utterly impassable just a few miles away.

That’s where the geology part comes in. Again unlike Chicago, we have hills. I live on one, and I can attest that no one can drive a wheeled vehicle of any kind up or down my hill when the street is covered with a smooth, reflective sheet of ice, as it was this morning. I doubt that even Todd Palin could manage it in one of his “snow machines.” Please don’t come try, or you’ll end up in my neighbor John’s front yard.

Hills could be the reason, but I suspect is has more to do with the fact that Washington D.C. is a city of transplants. In any given year, some significant portion of our neighbors hail from some warmer clime where they never had to drive on snow or ice. Still, it’s pretty reasonable to ask locals to toughen up, particularly if the forecast is for three inches or less. Think of cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul — if snow or the threat of snow was sufficient to close schools and businesses, those cities would close down for the entire winter.

Are school administrators driven by a fear of lawsuits? I suppose it only takes one school bus skidding and having an accident to spur endless cries of outrage from parents. And this is the era of the “helicopter parent” and the “risk-averse parent,” worrying about everything.

Mollie Hemingway, earlier this year:

David Frum eloquently pointed out one problem with over-protecting children in his book What’s Right. Reflecting on the hordes of preschoolers wearing helmets as they rode 1-2 miles per hour down the sidewalk, he wondered if his fellow parents hadn’t gone mad.

Our children are soaked with the cult of safety the way they would once have imbibed religion or patriotism. At school, teachers ’street-proof’ children — that is, they teach them that kidnappers and child molesters lurk in every playground. Television excites children with environmentalist fears that the air and water they breathe and drink teem with toxins, that the food they eat is saturated with deadly pesticides, and that the juice bottles they discard will soon cover the entire surface of the earth.

When everything is a safety crisis, nothing is.

Over at a blog called The Contrarian:

We expect things to be okay, we see it as an entitlement. And when something does go wrong, we want to blame it on someone. People in administration know this, and they don’t want to be the one blamed.

If I didn’t know better, I would think D.C. and its surrounding suburbs took a perverse pride in their inability to deal with winter weather.


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