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TOM KEANE

Snow days

With snow days, officials must err on side of safety

A man shoveled snow on Commonwealth Avenue on Friday.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

A man shoveled snow on Commonwealth Avenue on Friday.

Last Wednesday, Washington, D.C., shut down — federal workers told to stay home, schools closed — for a storm, trumpeted as the “Snowquester,” that turned out to be a light rain with a gentle breeze. North Korean despot Kim Jong Un, full of crazy bluster, must have been pleased to see that so little was required to humble the mighty American superpower.

The next day the same storm system showed up in New England and blew the region away, with destructive winds and a surprise, heavy snowfall starting Thursday night that blanketed streets and snarled Friday traffic. Yet Boston’s schools stayed open, giving us the incongruous sight of Mayor Tom Menino warning folks not to drive even as yellow buses were picking up their kids.

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Officials and weather forecasters in both cities were roundly mocked. Next time, I suspect, we’ll see schools and businesses open in Washington undeterred by a raging blizzard while Boston will declare a state of emergency based on a five-day forecast. As they say about war, we’re always fighting the last battle.

The weather battle with real historical value, however, is now 35 years old: the epic Blizzard of 1978. That storm hit hardest on a Monday, making the evening commute a nightmare. Plows couldn’t remove snow quickly enough, and cars on major roads struggled to make it through the drifts. Some got stuck, and those behind them, with nowhere to go, got stuck as well, until entire highways were little more than parking lots. Then-Governor Michael Dukakis declared a state of emergency, shutting down the entire state for three days. But that declaration came too late for many: Nearly 100 people died, while another 4,500 were injured.

Much of the death and destruction from the 1978 storm could have been avoided if state officials had responded sooner. The blizzard was not unexpected; snow had begun falling on Sunday. Yet most went to work the following day as if things were normal. Since then, government officials have tended to err on the side of caution. The blizzard that hit the Bay State last month (“Nemo,” according to The Weather Channel) was a perfect example of that. Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency before the storm hit. A striking reminder of just how much power a governor has, the order shut down commerce and prohibited drivers from the roads, a near-suspension of civil liberties. It was a drastic measure, and Patrick was, in a sense, lucky the storm did indeed arrive and that its might was largely as advertised. If Nemo had behaved differently, or if Patrick hadn’t reacted quickly to meteorologists’ projections, there would have been political hell to pay. Instead, he came across as a hero.

Menino wasn’t so lucky. With fears about the Washington Snowquester clearly over-hyped (not unlike fears of the sequester, it appears), officials along the Northeast coast watched the approaching storm with a jaundiced eye. On Thursday — the day the storm was supposed to hit Boston — there was a lot of wind and some messy precipitation but nothing of great consequence. But as evening approached, the warnings got more dire.

The mayor said he was receiving “conflicting forecasts during the night and morning.” If the information was “conflicting,” why choose to believe those who were discounting the storm instead of those who were increasingly worried? Perhaps, like many of us, City Hall has become distrustful of the ratings-driven “storm centers” that exaggerate every weather event. Or maybe officials didn’t want to suffer the same humiliation as those in Washington for their errant call.

The lesson of the ’78 blizzard is that it’s better to over-react. Granted, as much as meteorology has advanced in recent years, there is still much uncertainty about the science. That makes it tough for politicians who know a mistake either way will get them denounced. Thus, Menino challenger John Connolly almost immediately claimed he would have done differently. “We have to put the safety of our children, teachers, and school staff first,” he said. Politics notwithstanding, he’s probably right. It’s embarrassing when a heavy snow turns out to be just a mild rain. But better to suffer those consequences than put lives at risk.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com
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