Thursday, January 30, 2014

Two inches?

We here in Chicago are feeling not a little smug these days as news reports coming from the great city of Atlanta tell us that city came to a standstill this week because of two inches of snow. In Chicago, an incapacitating snowfall is measured in feet not in inches so it does seem a little ridiculous to us that two measly inches would cause such a fuss.

Chicago this month has had its own problems with the severe winter, schools and places of business have closed due to unusually cold temperatures. Of course cold and snow of any kind is unusual in the Sun Belt; consequently cities like Atlanta are not equipped to deal with the white stuff. The entire city I'm told has all of three trucks equipped with snow plowing apparatus, and folks there have little experience driving on snow and ice, not to mention adequate clothing for sub-freezing temps. Consequently many Atlantans were stranded in their cars for up to 24 hours in the cold, trying to get home from work. Before we get too cheeky up here in Chi-town about our friends' plight in the Peach State, we have to remember it's all relative. I have no doubt that people in places like Minneapolis and Winnipeg are laughing at us right now for bitching and moaning about our chilly weather.

But two inches, really?

Sorry, I got a little carried away. A city after all can't be expected to come through unscathed whenever there's a once in fifty year weather event. I'm reminded of the 1979 blizzard in Chicago. Over a period of three days, about 200 feet of snow fell on this city. OK that's a bit of an exaggeration. Anyway the mayor at the time, Michael Bilandic was asked why the city was so slow in dealing with the snow problem. His answer, "what snow problem?", cost him his job. I can still see the famous campaign commercial of his soon-to-be successor, Jane Byrne. She wasted no time taking advantage of Bilandic's miscue by standing outside in the middle of the blizzard promising voters that if she were elected mayor, it would never snow again. She won the election and gosh darn it, we haven't had that much snow since. The other result of that blizzard is this: such is the fear of a repeat of the Bilandic fiasco, at the mere mention of the possibility of a trace of snow, the sitting mayor orders the entire fleet of plows and salt spreaders onto the streets. This city dumps so much salt on the streets in the winter that you can literally taste it in the air. It's not uncommon to see more salt on the streets than snow, although rumors of children in Chicago building saltmen are urban legend.

That's beginning to change. Due to budgetary constraints, we simply don't have as much money to spend on salt as we used to. It's mere speculation, but since our current mayor has aspirations other than being mayor for life, perhaps he's not quite so gung ho about dumping salt before the snow even starts to fall. A couple of weeks ago on a Sunday, we got about a foot of snow (no exaggeration) and at least in my neighborhood, there were no plows to be seen for most of the day. Still, people managed to get out, walking and driving about town without too much fuss. Of course most people in this town at least own a snow shovel.

My guess is that most people in Atlanta don't. Still, two inches?

I was transfixed on the TV while eating lunch today. The entire broadcast dealt with Atlanta's snow problem. There were helicopter shots of highways filled with stranded vehicles, people checking in to hotels after abandoning their vehicles, and live coverage of the Governor of Georgia apologizing to his constituents at a press conference for the chaos that ensued after their ahem, snowstorm. He's up for election later this year  and my guess is that the press conference was largely damage control. While politicians can't be blamed for bad weather, all indications point to the fact that the city of Atlanta and the State of Georgia screwed up:
  • Turns out there was a severe ice storm a few years back in the area with much the same results. 
  • This storm had been predicted for many days, heck I even knew it was coming thanks to a Facebook friend, so there was plenty of time to prepare. 
  • When the storm began, the city advised businesses to send their employees home early without any thought of staggering release times, meaning that everyone was out on the roads at exactly the time the storm was at is worst.
But it's a double edged sword. Had government officials told people not to come in to work at all in anticipation of bad weather and the storm had proven not to be severe, you can bet there would have been hell to pay due to lost production and revenue from those businesses. It's a crap shoot and this time the local and state officials lost.

A few years ago, we had a bad storm that dumped between two and three feet (again, no exaggeration) on the city. Everybody knew it was coming for about a week, and almost everybody was prepared. Still, several motorists were stranded on Lake Shore Drive in snow drifts that literally covered cars up to their windshields and higher. Few however felt much sympathy for those people as they simply defied logic by driving that day.

That's not to say the folks in Atlanta should have been more prepared; the real culprit is the fact that Atlanta and so many other cities like it are designed around the automobile, allowing for little or no other transportation options. Here in Chicago when we were confronted with the very real threat of a major blizzard hitting later in the day, most everybody who elected not to stay home that day, chose not to drive to work. That meant even if they got stranded on say, a bus, they could get off and walk to a transportation alternative, or simply walk home. That is not an option in a city like Atlanta where most people live several miles from where they work and have no option other than driving.

The good news is that despite being terribly inconvenienced, people in Atlanta experienced something we experience up here in the Snow Belt more often: the misfortune of a community bringing people together. There were lots of stories of people helping out strangers by opening their doors to them, by bringing food, or simply commiserating with one another. Here is a link to a feature made by the Atlanta CBS affiliate featuring the husband of a friend of mine among others, helping out. I remember three years ago when we had our last big blizzard, people were nicer to each other. I have nothing but good memories of that experience and I imagine given some distance from the event, most Atlantans will feel the same. Nothing brings people together more than shared misery. As they say, if it doesn't kill you it only makes you stronger.

I close with some words of wisdom from Facebook. Yes between all the babble and photographs of cats you can find some real wisdom there. One friend posted that he found the terms describing our recent arctic blast, namely "Polar Vortex" and Chiberia" to be rather unsatisfactory. One of his friends replied: "I just call it January." The winner came from another friend who posted this:
If you're not homeless, please don't complain about the weather.
I rather liked that one. Try to stay warm everybody.

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