WASHINGTON – Two feet of snow in 36 hours would be enough to test the will of the people – and endanger lives – in any city, including Buffalo.
Yet it’s even more of a threat in a place like the nation’s capital, where snowplows are as common as bipartisan compromise.
That being the case, as an epic blizzard’s first few inches of snow started to pile up on Friday afternoon, so did the worries – except, it seemed, among the city’s large contingent of expats from Buffalo.
Note the contrast between the words of D.C.’s mayor and those of Sean Weppner, a Washington resident who spent 23 of his 30 years in metro Buffalo.
“We see this as a major storm,” said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. “It has life and death implications, and all the residents of the District of Columbia should treat it that way.”
Meantime, Weppner – the son of former Republican congressional candidate Kathy Weppner – was all set to sit out the storm at home, and was not especially worried about it.
“I kind of feel like I’m back home,” said Weppner, a local tech consultant. “For me, it’s not so much of a freakout as it is a slowdown.”
Those who chose to freak out, though, could cite both meteorology and experience as good reasons to do so.
First, note the forecast, which was so ominous that the federal government shut down at noontime, bus and subway operations were set to close later on Friday, and utility companies warned of prolonged power outages.
“Heavy snow and blowing snow will cause dangerous conditions and will be a threat to life and property,” the National Weather Service warned Friday afternoon. “Travel is expected to be severely limited if not impossible during the height of the storm tonight and Saturday. Visibility will be reduced to near zero at times in whiteout conditions.”
Then there’s the harsh fact that only two days before the weekend storm that the Washington Post named “Snowzilla,” the paper quite rightfully published a story headlined: “An inch of snow, icy roads unleash 9 hours of traffic chaos across D.C. region.”
Driving from her D.C. office to her home in the Virginia suburbs Wednesday night, Laurie Kellman found herself stuck in that traffic chaos for five hours – a fact that she blames on poor planning by local governments.
“Completely untreated roads when the snow started falling, in all three major jurisdictions,” said Kellman, 48, the daughter of former WGRZ-TV anchor and reporter Rich Kellman. “It’s a total fail in terms of public safety, and one that other cities, such as Buffalo, avoid.”
Bowser, the D.C. mayor, acknowledged that road crews should have treated the streets before they turned into treacherous sheets of black ice, and vowed that the city would do its best in the face of a forecast that was the worst the city had seen in 90 years.
Washington does face some natural handicaps when it comes to handling snowstorms of this – or any – magnitude.
For instance, there’s the matter of money. Boston, home to a few thousand more people than D.C. but a geographically smaller city, budgeted $22 million for snow removal this year, the Post reported. Washington, meantime, set aside a measly $6.2 million.
Of course, the local government budgeted so little for snow removal because there’s usually so little snow to remove. The average annual snowfall here is only 15.4 inches. By comparison, Buffalo gets six times as much.
Not surprisingly, then, local governments here don’t have the same equipment or experienced snow-removal crews that highway departments have in the Buffalo area.
“You’re not going to buy that stuff here because you don’t have the use for them,” noted Jeffrey Hunt, 25, a native of Holland who now goes to graduate school at the University of Maryland, just outside of D.C.
There are consequences, though, to the D.C. area’s snow-removal stinginess.
Zach Miknis, who spent six years in the Buffalo area, recalled that snow there was always removed in a day. But after a huge storm called “Snowmageddon” in 2010, it took four or five days for all the streets to be cleared in Leesburg, Va., where Miknis lived at the time.
“It was sort of amateurish,” said Miknis, 34, who now lives in Alexandria, Va.
“Amateurish” is a good description of how average Washingtonians react to snow, too. As Kellman said, “snow baffles us.” Proof could be found at local grocery stores, which ran short of many items – including, oddly, lettuce, which is not typically regarded as a comfort food.
It all happened because grocery shoppers stuffed their carts with more food than any human could eat during a three-day blizzard. As a result, at a Trader Joe’s about a mile north of the White House, all the eggs and meat were gone by Thursday night, and a line of customers waiting to check out snaked from the front of the store through all six aisles to the far back corner.
“I find the panic and run to the grocery stores laughable,” said Sam Sanders, 30, a Buffalo native who now lives on Capitol Hill.
So does Tim Wendel, an author of nine books who grew up in Lockport but now lives in the D.C. suburb of Vienna, Va.
Wendel went to a local Wegmans on Wednesday night and had an experience that would probably make Jimmy Griffin, the late Buffalo mayor, curse and reach for a cold one.
“Wegmans, of course, was packed, but what I couldn’t believe was that the produce section was cleaned out,” Wendel noted. “Not a carrot or green bean or mixed salad to be had. But there was plenty of beer. I couldn’t help thinking these folks have their priorities mixed up.”
Then again, some Washingtonians do have their priorities straight.
“A few of us are gathering for the Snow Wars,” noted Jack Bienko, 44, a Buffalo native who now lives in suburban Maryland.
What’s that, you ask? It’s “Snow Wars: The Snowball Strikes Back,” a Sunday event sponsored by the Washington DC Snowball Fight Association. (Yes, in Washington, it seems that even snowball fighters have a lobbying organization).
Hundreds are expected to gather in Dupont Circle, in the heart of the city, to lob snowballs at each other during the event.
“You can have lobbyists there, you can have people who work on the Hill or people who work at Chipotle,” said Weppner, a veteran of previous such battles. “All that matters is: Can you throw a snowball?”