Dealing With Blizzards In Major US Cities

Whether two inches or two feet, snowfall can wreak havoc on a city – as residents of Atlanta and Buffalo know all too well – or it can be a relative non-event. So how should a mayor best respond to a serious forecast of snow?

Atlanta’s I-75/I-85 freeway is bizarrely car-free following last February’s forecasts of a snowstorm ‘of historic proportions’. Photograph: Ben Gray/AP.
Atlanta’s I-75/I-85 freeway is bizarrely car-free following last February’s forecasts of a snowstorm ‘of historic proportions’. Photograph: Ben Gray/AP.

American TV audiences were riveted by the sight of CNN anchor Don Lemon roaming the virtually vacant streets of New York in the news channel’s very own “Blizzardmobile”. In anticipation of the major snowstorm that had been forecast, mayor Bill de Blasio had shut the subways and closed schools, while governor Andrew Cuomo – along with his counterparts across the region – had declared a state of emergency.

But Lemon was chasing a disaster that never materialised. Although eight inches of snow fell on New York, it was nowhere near the historic levels predicted. And what of Lemon? His efforts earned CNN a ratings bonanza, saw him trend on Twitter, and provided Jon Stewart and the Daily Show with ample material. In New York, the mayor and governor took some stick in the local press: “De-Railed: The Great Snow Job of 2015,” trumpeted the Post, while Daily News observed drily, “Yup, It Snowed!”

But now, as another major storm sweeps across the country, these leaders have again faced the question of how much caution to exercise. For every mayor and governor knows the political risk of underestimating a storm: in late January 2014, Atlanta was blindsided by two inches of snow that caused crippling gridlock, left thousands of motorists stranded on highways, trapped hundreds of children in classrooms or school buses, and shuttered businesses across the region.

The snowstorm underscored the fractured state of the region, which sprawls over 28 counties and is home to almost six million people. While the city of Atlanta represents a fraction of the total population, it is the centre of commerce, and on the day the storm hit a million people tried to leave at the same time, clogging the I-75/I-85 freeway that runs through the heart of downtown. As the smattering of snow turned into ice, cars crawled along the roads – or skidded off into medians. The resulting gridlock paralysed metropolitan Atlanta, making it hard for ambulances to reach accident victims and virtually impossible for road crews to clear and treat the freeway.

People take refuge in an Atlanta grocery store after being stranded by the snowstorm of January 2014. Photograph: Tami Chappell/Reuters.
People take refuge in an Atlanta grocery store after being stranded by the snowstorm of January 2014. Photograph: Tami Chappell/Reuters.

There was not a coordinated effort to close schools or businesses, so everyone left at once. Parents, trapped on the highways, couldn’t reach their children, and schools made ad hoc decisions about closing early or dismissing students. In one county, Fulton, 90 buses with students were reportedly trapped on roads overnight. People who had not joined the mass exodus from downtown camped out in office buildings, scrambled for hotel rooms, or went home with co-workers who lived close by.

Two weeks later, a second storm “of historic proportions” was forecast, and the state’s chastened governor Nathan Deal – having been widely criticised for calling the earlier snowstorm “unexpected” – declared a state of emergency in 40 counties. Atlanta’s mayor Kasim Reed put city workers on high alert – and posted a stern-faced photo of himself in front of a snowplough on Facebook. This time, however, the weather proved anticlimactic. Streets emptied and news crews reported on the general, well, lack of news.

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These cases underscore the conundrum that cities face when it comes to snow. React too strongly and you’re open for ridicule – and accused of wasting resources and crippling commerce. Don’t prepare, and you could face an emergency that is dangerous for your constituents and damaging for your career.

Last week’s storm bypassed New York but it did reach Boston, dumping two feet of snow on the city. Mayor Marty Walsh declared a snow emergency, closed schools and asked residents to stay off the streets while snowploughs cleared 850 miles of roadway – the distance from Boston to Chicago.

“My impression from being in Boston last week is that saying, ‘Oh my god, there is a big storm coming in’ is good ratings for TV,” said Maggie Koerth-Baker, a science journalist on a fellowship at Harvard University. That kind of reaction in advance of a storm “can be good if it’s keeping people off the streets”, she says, but is not proportionate to the actual weather emergency: “The new trend of the Weather Channel naming the snowstorms is not necessarily a great thing. People can think of all storms as hurricanes, and not all storms should be thought of that way.” (The Weather Channel dubbed last week’s storm Juno; the latest one has been christened Linus.)

Residents in South Boston dig out their cars following the recent visit of snowstorm Juno. Photograph: CJ Gunther/EPA.
Residents in South Boston dig out their cars following the recent visit of snowstorm Juno. Photograph: CJ Gunther/EPA.

Does planning for a snow blizzard have anything in common with preparing for a hurricane? John Travis Marshall, a disaster planning expert who worked with post-Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts in New Orleans, instinctively calls this “an ‘apples to oranges’ comparison … A blizzard can blanket an entire region, temporarily slowing it down or paralysing its transit ‘limbs’, but a catastrophic flood such as Cedar Rapids experienced, or the flooding triggered by Katrina’s levee failures, can fundamentally alter cities, drowning and decimating neighbourhoods.”

On the other hand, Marshall says: “There is a fundamentally important connection. Natural hazards – earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires – are the adversities that our local governments must expect and be prepared to manage.” And while damage from a flood, even a hurricane, might be localised, winter storms affect huge areas: Linus’s impact is being felt from Detroit to New York, an area inhabited by 100 million people.

According to Professor Ann-Margaret Esnard from Georgia State University, the biggest problems come when many of those people try to get out, go about their business and navigate snow- or ice-covered roads. “Pre-event planning requires more input from the transportation sector, given the importance of roadway treatments and clearance of snow,” Esnard adds.

Todd McCormick lives in suburban New Hampshire and commutes 50 miles into Waltham, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. He says that last week’s declaration of emergency was a prudent move: “It helps sway the companies to close when the governor comes out and says it’s illegal to be on the roads unless you’re in an emergency vehicle.” With schools and offices closed, roads can be cleared faster, allowing business as usual to resume more quickly – by Thursday, McCormick was back at work: “There were mountains of snow everywhere but the roads were generally clear.”

“Local and state government responses to snowstorms and to catastrophic events like hurricanes and earthquakes have this in common,” says Marshall. “They provide vivid snapshots (and sometimes breathtaking film footage) of a city’s health or vitality.” And by extension, images of Atlanta’s freeways turned into frigid parking lots will have damaged the metro area’s reputation for business or big events.

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Southern US cities, of course, have some excuse for any such lack of readiness: because it snows less frequently there, it does not make sense to invest in as much equipment or materials like salt and sand. Consider: the city of Atlanta has 70 snowploughs and spreaders; Boston has 500. The latter city maintains a webpage dedicated to storm updates, while Chicago provides real-time tracking of its snow ploughs, which are equipped with GPS devices.

Storm clouds loom over Buffalo; last November’s blizzard dumped a year’s worth of snow on the city in three days. Photograph: Reuters.
Storm clouds loom over Buffalo; last November’s blizzard dumped a year’s worth of snow on the city in three days. Photograph: Reuters.

But even the best-prepared city – and hardiest citizens – are not able to withstand a storm that truly lives up to the label “historic proportions”. On 12 November 2014, Byron Brown, the mayor of Buffalo, proudly unveiled $700,000 in new snow equipment. “Buffalo is ready for winter weather,” he said. But it was not ready for the once-in-a-generation weather event that occurred less than a week later: a pair of “lake-effect” snowstorms.

The result of a trifecta of perfect-storm conditions – cold air, warm air above Lake Erie, and gusty winds – a colossal wave moved over the city on 17-18 November, bringing five feet of snow, burying cars and a 100-mile expanse of highway, and leaving some drivers trapped for 30 hours. As rescue crews scrambled, a second wave hit the following day, dropping another few feet of snow and making clean-up even more difficult. At least 10 deaths were blamed on these storms, and the city was shut down for weeks. Recovery is still ongoing, with the city’s disaster loan center accepting loan applications through February.

And what of Syracuse, which, with 126 inches of average annual snowfall, has been dubbed the snowiest city in America? “The government up here is quite effective in dealing with snow,” says one resident, James Haugli. “Usually it’s cleared away fast and unbelievably well.” This year, though, has been drier than usual for Syracuse, a condition that’s been dubbed a “snow drought”. “We have dodged so many storms this winter I have become blasé,” says Haugli.

In the New Hampshire town of Danville (population 4,400) where McCormick lives, dealing with snow is so important that residents elect someone to the position of Road Agent, charged with planning for snow events. But even in a place so well prepared, “weather is the news.” With the approach of the next storm, “they will break into just about everything to give an update on the weather – on every channel.” McCormick, who lived in the Atlanta suburb of Norcross before moving to New England, says that “snow is every bit as hyped here as in Atlanta”.

So what did Atlanta learn from last year’s storm, to better prepare for this winter? “A combination of advance preparation, timely decisions, and clear lines of communication from city to county to state,” says the city’s chief operating officer, Michael Geisler. “Any emergency – weather or otherwise – can be a complex and dynamic event.”


This article originally appeared in The Guardian.

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