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Here’s A Closer Look At DC’s Snow Paralysis

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When NBC’s Brian Williams said, “there is nothing quite like being on Chain Bridge at 5 o’clock in the afternoon when the first snowflake appears to put fear in the heart of a driver,” he really wasn’t lying.

Every winter, visitors and newcomers to the nation’s capital marvel at the city’s inept handling of even moderate snowfall, and theories abound regarding the reason for D.C.’s shortcomings.

Beyond mere anecdotal observations about the inefficacy of snow removal and the panicked hoarding of local residents at the slightest hint of impending winter weather, the problem is further highlighted by the all-too-common closure of government facilities.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) “announced early Thursday morning that federal offices in the Washington area will be closed because of a winter storm in the region … citing dropping temperatures and a predicted 4-8 inches of snow making transportation difficult,” according to Government Executive.

Congress made its decision even earlier, Fox reports, adjourning Wednesday afternoon after lawmakers “reached rare bipartisan agreement on the desire … to beat a forecast snowstorm out of town.” (RELATED: Sen. Jim DeMint Twitters: DC Snow will Continue ‘Until Al Gore Cries Uncle’)

As those familiar with the region well know, the situation can be even worse when snowfall predictions actually do materialize, which they did on Thursday. (RELATED: Snow Storm Takes Hold, Paralyzing Nation’s Capital)

A 2013 BuzzFeed article highlights a typical case of unjustified panic, photographically documenting sparse grocery store shelves, frantically worded closure notices, and … an almost complete lack of snow.

“The District’s repeated shutdowns over a few inches of snow have drawn groans from the country’s Northeastern brethren,” The Washington Post claims, pointing out that Boston, in contrast, “has endured record snowfall this winter yet has mostly kept running.”

Certainly, there are cities that do a worse job of handling snow, but then most of them are located in Southern states where the scarcity of snow explains, or even justifies, a lack of preparedness. D.C., conversely, endures multiple snowstorms each year, and still seemingly manages to be caught flat-footed nearly every time.

In an op-ed for National Journal, Mathew Cooper speculates that D.C.’s struggle to cope with the snow has to do with “that betwixt-and-between quality of the Mid-Atlantic states,” though he does concede that, “the good people of nearby Baltimore … seem to cope better with nearly identical weather.”

Residents of D.C., he suggests, “get enough snow to be anxious but not enough to face it with equanimity.” (RELATED: Email: Colorado is Too ‘Broke’ to Afford Snow-Clearing Supplies)

Mollie Hemmingway, in an op-ed for The Federalist, takes that logic a step further, arguing that D.C. residents are conditioned to accept the city’s inadequate response by “weather wimps” in the media.

“My mother knows every time a smattering of snow hits D.C., because it’s national news,” she points out, adding that, “A media that cowers in terror of a dusting of snow is probably not well suited to hold government officials accountable.”

Indeed, a lack of accountability may well be at the root of the problem. “Despite more than a decade of bad headlines about D.C. snow removal,” The Washington Post reports that the director of the District’s Department of Public Works is now on his fourth mayoral administration.

“While the District is often criticized for not doing better in snowstorms,” the Post explains, “there is also widespread fear … that the city could do far worse,” making city officials reluctant to attempt a major shake-up at the agency that “runs almost everything that D.C. residents complain about.”

Yet a comparison of the resources that D.C. and Baltimore each devote to snow removal indicates that the agency could also do better. Whereas D.C.’s Department of Public Works has 345 pieces of snow removal equipment and 750 personnel with which to clear 2,295 lane miles, Baltimore County manages to clear 6,722 lane miles with just 300 trucks and 400 personnel.

So certainly, there’s some hard truth behind the legend.

Follow Peter Fricke on Twitter

 

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