Report from Snowmageddon

The levels of damages from the recent Washington snowfalls were nothing like the widespread destruction of property and loss of lives from Hurricane Katrina. Still, the governments in the Washington area, while not facing a natural disaster of the same magnitude, showed a Katrina-like ineptitude.

Heavy snow fell in my Maryland neighborhood from mid-afternoon on Friday, February 5, until late Saturday, February 6, leaving about 20 to 25 inches of snow. This was admittedly an extreme event that has happened only about 4 or 5 times in the past 30 years. It required state and local governments to show some real flexibility and an ability to devise new strategic responses on the fly. They failed!

A Montgomery County snowplow did finally come through my neighborhood on the evening of February 7, actually sooner than I had feared. The real problem was the arterials. Even on Monday the 15th, while my neighborhood roads were showing bare pavement, nearby East-West Highway — a main thoroughfare for Montgomery County — was covered with layers of ice and snow. Only one lane was functioning in each direction.

It was crazy not to clear the arterials first. Admittedly, the neighborhood streets are a County responsibility and East-West Highway is a Maryland State responsibility. In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, state and local governments also had trouble coordinating.

Then, remarkably, another 12 or so inches of snow hit on Tuesday and Wednesday. And the same mistakes were made — but now worse. Cleanup of neighborhood streets was taking place by Thursday while long lines of traffic were snaking along the single lanes that were still the only ones open on East-West Highway. Throughout the whole Washington area it was much the same.

After being closed up to then, the federal government finally decided to reopen on Friday, February 12. The result was total gridlock all day long, creating some of the worst traffic tieups ever seen in the Washington area. Even emergency vehicles could not move.

But given the large snowpiles on the main streets, it was all very predictable. So why did area governments subject their citizens to this kind of insult? At the federal level the decision lay in the hands of the Office of Personnel Management. Its director, John Berry, lamely told the Washington Post that the federal government could shut down for safety reasons but not when total gridlock would result.

Then, since the coming Monday was Presidents’ Day, there was a three-day weekend to finally get Washington’s main roads in shape. With low traffic flows, the disruptions to fully clear the arterials would have been minimized. But area governments largely did not take advantage.

On Tuesday, February 16, the curb lanes on East-West Highway — like dozens of other arterial roads throughout the Washington area — were still blocked by snow and ice, leaving roads to operate at half capacity. By rush hour the whole Washington region was again in gridlock. People were taking 2 or 3 hours to go a few miles. Adding insult to injury, on East-West Highway, after doing nothing for three days over the weekend, snowplows finally began to work on the missing lane problem on late Tuesday, further backing up traffic for miles.

An even more important local arterial near me, Connecticut Avenue, was still operating Thursday with only two out of three lanes available along key stretches. Eight days after the snow had stopped, area governments had not been able to get a main highway fully cleared.

Katrina became a symbol of government failure.  For Washingtonians, we now have our own symbol, the Snowmaggedon of February 2010. Maybe before taking on more ambitious tasks, we should ask American governments to show that they can handle a simpler problem, like getting the streets plowed after an unusually large snowfall.