The capital’s favorite sort of crisis

Sam Smith, 2007 – IN ANOTHER OF ITS wonderfully fusty headlines, the Washington Post woke up readers today with the banner: Bracing for an Unwelcome Glaze. What with 28 reporters on the sleet story, that seemed a little timid even for the Post so it at least livened things up a bit on its web page.

Meanwhile, Matt Drudge was thrilled to report that a House hearing on global warming – like just about everything else in town – had been cancelled because of the storm. Just to avoid such joy, we have long argued that ‘climate change’ was a better term than ‘global warming.’ In any case, it certainly is fortunate that we’re not suffering from global cooling or Washington would have shut down long ago.

What the Post had actually sent out 28 reporters to cover was, according to Accuweather, exactly .92 inches of precipitation. But the Post takes such things quite seriously as your editor discovered two decades ago when he was still in the publication’s good graces. He had been asked to write a piece on the latest storm and sat in an office for half an hour as the editor of the Outlook section and the op ed page editor argued over who would get to run it. The amazing thing was that neither had read the actual article. What they were really arguing about was who was in charge of snow.

Washington has never handled snow well. The most tragic example occurred in 1922 and a January storm brought 28 inches. On January 28 the roof collapsed on the Knickerbocker Theater, occupied by 900 persons. 98 were crushed to death and another 158 were injured.

Not long after Marion Barry took office in the 1970s, the Post’s Milton Coleman rode the streets with the mayor and gleaned some disturbing information. As I described it, “Wrote Coleman: ‘The mayor is not dealing with this snow problem personally. He said he is confident that the chore is being capably handled by his two right-hand men — city administrator Elijah B. Rogers and general assistant Ivanhoe Donaldson. It is not a job for the city’s elected leader.”

“Barry, who had just returned from a four-day vacation in Miami, told Coleman: ‘There are more important things for me to worry about than snow. . .’ He was asked how people should get to work. Barry said they should take the bus. It was pointed out that the buses weren’t running. Said Barry: ‘They can walk.’ He added: ‘There must be 5000 streets in the District of Columbia. You can’t clean them all.'”

Barry had equaled in indifference – if not in eloquence – the earlier thoughts of Mayor James Michael Curley of Boston: “The Lord brought it; let the Lord take it away.”

SAM SMITH, WASHINGTON POST, FEB 1, 1987 – Al Thompson is superintendent of roads in Freeport, Maine, with a population about 1 percent of that of the District. But what Maine lacks in people, it makes up in roads, so Al Thompson has about 12 percent of Washington’s asphalt mileage to look after.

Now Al doesn’t have anything like the equivalent of Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues in his charge, and the local politicians tend to realize that nature often is impervious to memos, directives and policy guidelines. On the other hand, he works without the benefit of Snow Command Centers, Computerized Cancellation Centers and Codes Yellow. What he does have is five trucks with 12-foot dustpans and 11-foot wings.

How long does it take his trucks to cover 130 miles? Says Al: “An hour and a half, an hour and three-quarters.” Then it takes another three hours for a second “cleanup” trip.

To put it in D.C. terms, that would mean, with the number of vehicles we’ve got (if properly equipped), you theoretically could sweep through the city in a couple of hours. . .

Now, before someone at the District Building picks up the phone to tell The Post about “complex urban problems,” let me tell you about George Flaherty. He’s director of parks and public works for Portland, Maine. Portland is about one-tenth the size of D.C. but has nearly 30 percent of its street mileage. He uses about a quarter of D.C.’s equipment and expects to have the job done in 8 to 10 hours.

I asked if he could explain the logic of a not-uncommon Washington scene: two snow plows working directly behind each other, sometimes with a Department of Public Works pickup truck in the lead. He just laughed and said, “No.” . . .

And you don’t wait until four inches have piled up before you start plowing. You start when you’ve got an inch and a half, and you stay ahead of the storm. And you don’t leave it to the Almighty once ice-covered streets become mushy. You run the plows through and get the stuff off. Here, even downtown, we let the streets freeze again so the morning traffic reporters will have something to talk about. . .

It will be argued that northern cities are willing to pay a high premium for clearing their streets because they get so much snow. But this year Portland budgeted, like most cities, for the best of all possible worlds: 25 inches, a winter roughly comparable to ours so far. With one-third the street mileage of D.C., Portland still planned to spend one-third more.

Why? Maybe because they know what bringing a city to a halt really costs. Here are some figures that will give you a rough idea of the costs of closing down D.C. for a day: the D.C. government spends $3 million a day on its payroll; the federal government spends close to $20 million a day for its D.C. payroll; private businesses spend another $30 million. What did D.C. budget for snow removal? Just under $1 million. Calculate the odds yourself.

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