Snow daze: Washington & Maine

Sam Smith

In part because the media has misleadingly written endlessly about global warming rather than climate change, there are going to more than a few people in mid-Atlantic cities who think the recent snows prove it’s all not a problem.

In fact, as a reader recently pointed out, change is just that. It is hard to predict. We know past data definitely indicates a shift but we can’t define the precise nature of that shift because we haven’t experienced it yet.

Just before the current blizzard, the National Wildlife Federation issued a report that suggested that we shouldn’t be surprised by such things:

“Global warming is having a seemingly peculiar effect on winter weather in the northern United States. Winter is becoming milder and shorter on average; spring arrives 10 to 14 days earlier than it did just 20 years ago. But most snow belt areas are still experiencing extremely heavy snowstorms. . . Even as global warming slowly changes the character of winter, we will still experience significant year-to-year variability in snowfall and temperature because many different factors are at play.”

Washington, DC, well illustrates the uncertain quality of change. The storm last weekend dropped the fourth largest amount of snow on the city in recorded history. But you need only to go back two years to February 6, 2008, and you’ll find the city setting a warmth record for that date of 74 degrees. The coldest February 6 was back in 1895, when the thermometer fell to one degree.

It may help to keep in mind two principles:

– Change is change and doesn’t fully define itself until it’s happened.

– An average is only an average.

Having recently moved from DC to Maine, I gaze out my window at the remains of 22 inches of snow that hardly slowed things down at all in these parts and recall the number of my friends who said something like, “How are you going to survive those Maine winters?” and I think how grateful I am I wasn’t back in DC this weekend.

In fact, Maine has two mre typical advantages over the capital in winter. We have a lot of sun and the cold is dry. Twenty-five degrees on a sunny Down East day is infinitely preferable to a 35 degree cloudy day in DC with the humid cold cutting through any protection you might be wearing.

Here’s how I described it back the 1970s:

“The city lived for spring and fall, periods separated by muggy summer and by an unpredictable yet dull winter. In the fall, the gauze of noxious gas that stretched over DC all summer was peeled away, permitting the sun a rare chance to lounge unimpeded against the sides of buildings or ricochet off spires. The air conditioner’s monotone was finally silenced and the hint of chill repulsed by a friendly jacket. But the spring was even better; you quickly forgot the snow that didn’t come, or that did come but all in one blizzard, and you luxuriated in a few months of unadulterated color and life. Summer was awful and in winter it was best to heed the words of Mark Twain:

“‘When you arrived it was snowing. When you reached the hotel it was sleeting. When you went to bed it was raining. During the night it froze hard, and the wind blew some chimneys down. When you got up in the morning it was foggy. When you finished your breakfast at ten o’clock and went out, the sunshine was brilliant, the weather balmy and delicious, and the mud and slush deep and all pervading. You will like the climate-when you get used to it. . . . Take an umbrella, an overcoat, and a fan, and so forth.'”

As for Maine, I don’t have to check any data to confirm that the climate has changed. All I have to do is remember the Farm Bureau supper I attended as a kid where I overheard the straw hatted Harold Mann telling a companion, “Ayah. I remembah that wintah of ought eight. We had our first snow the middle of Octobah and come May 1st we were still on runnahs.”

San 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 0.92 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. 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, 2004 –

This issue is coming to you from the emergency center of the Progressive Review, just six blocks from the U.S. Capitol, where – more than two days after the snow started falling – the major arterial of East Capitol Street has yet to be plowed.

Your editor has spent much of this holiday weekend searching in vain for the “massive snow storm” promised him by Channel 5. In fact, the best I could come up with – absent cheating by measuring drifts – was a moderately impressive 13″ in my back yard.

Anyway, the problem with snow in Washington is not the precipitation but the difficulty in removing it. Some years back, when Marion Barry was mayor and I was not yet on the Washington Post’s blacklist, I was asked by the paper to write an Outlook section piece about a recent storm. I decided to compare Washington’s snow removal with that of another town I knew well, Freeport, Maine. As it turned out, Freeport had one percent of Washington’s population but ten percent of its road mileage. If memory serves, Freeport did the job with five trucks while it took 150 in DC – or three times as many per mile.

In the most recent storm the figure for DC was up to 300 trucks with plows although the city’s geography hasn’t expanded in the interval. This would mean that it now takes six times as many trucks per mile to clean a Washington street than it took to clean a Freeport road a decade ago.

Admittedly things are a bit simpler in Freeport and there are not as many cars parked where they shouldn’t be. Further the pace is decidedly slower. I once got a call from the local highway director who wanted a meeting. I invited him over for coffee and after a half hour of discussing the interesting irrelevancies of day he laid out his problem: would I mind if he cut a few alders that were blocking the view around a curve?

Still, a road is a road and snow is snow whether they’re in Washington or Maine. Something else has definitely happened over both time and space to make it much harder to plow a path – and it isn’t the weather.

My suspicion is that snowplowing, like everything else in this fair city, is being over-managed. That would explain a snow plow going down a street with a supervisor’s pickup truck ahead or three plows moving ad seriatim down an already well plowed street. Fortunately, however, the mayor was in Puerto Rico when the storm broke so he didn’t have time for his normal response to crisis: which would have been to call a ‘town meeting’ to seek input on outputting the snow.

There is at least six degrees of separation between DC’s winter practices and the small town plowers given 20 or 30 miles to clear and not to come back until it’s done. It is not that the latter are more competent, it is just that their local governments have more trust in their competency so the whole operation is much simpler.

As in public education and other government matters, we are spending enormous sums to make sure nothing goes wrong but in fact are just increasing the number of people able to screw things up.

There are certain jobs that do not lend themselves to the bureaucratic pyramid – they are jobs in which employees carry most of the capacity for good or evil in their own skill, judgment and ethical standards. Jobs like teaching school, patrolling a beat, or plowing a street. Training makes them better; bureaucratic systems rarely do.

It is something that Washington doesn’t understand at all, which is why I will remain in the Review’s emergency center save for an occasional visit to the Congress Market or Jimmy T’s grill until it all blows over.

Sam Smith, Washington Post, 1987 – Al Thompson is superintendent of roads in Freeport, Maine, with a population about one 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. Since it is clear our trucks are outmoded and not properly equipped, let’s look at it another way: 25 good snow plows could, using the Maine standard, run through every street in the city in nine 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.” Al Thompson agrees: “Doesn’t do any good to plow over ice. Got to use salt.”

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.

“As soon as the storm starts, we salt all our major arterials,” Flaherty says. In cases of major storms, “we will salt our critical areas just before it begins to snow.”. . .

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.