What Storm?

For the second time this winter, and the fifth time in recent memory, the Philadelphia media greatly overstated the impact of a low-key East Coast snowstorm, with the result that all local government (and most local business) closed for the day. This was the same day when I left home on empty roads at 9 am, the snow had stopped by 11, and the accumulation I left work to shovel had largely disappeared by the time I arrived back home at 3:30. Everyone loves a snow day, and it may be nowhere more deserved than in the Northeast United States, where Americans on average take the least amount of vacation, and there is no shortage of younger, more technologically savvy applicants to take the place of complacent and less competent administrative staff. However, our community willingness to allow a television weather personality to tell us when it is safe to go outside or go to work raises questions about autonomy, self-determination, and the current willingness to deal with the minor inconveniences that have always been part of winter.

People in northern climates have never been able to write-off one-quarter of the year on grounds that the roads may be icy and it might even snow. Hannibal crossed the Alps in winter, and Friedrich Barbarossa chose the same season to camp out on the front door of the Pope’s winter castle for a few weeks, to beg forgiveness for a minor misunderstanding of Christian doctrine. The late middle ages have in retrospect been dubbed a “little ice age,” although the burghers shown skating down canals in the works of Netherlands masters from the same era seem to be enjoying it.

Slightly more recently, in the winter of 1979, my older brother and I thought nothing of driving off in heavy snow, in a vehicle “equipped” with rear wheel drive and balding bias ply tires, to spend the afternoon skiing in the Poconos, and then digging the car out in the darkness and driving home, all the time without cellphones. Sliding off the road surface in darkness with no certainty of rescue was a possibility, but personal responsibility took care of that, and it added up to a risk we were willing to take for the sake of a cheap lift ticket on the best conditions of the year.

Today’s conditions, where schools, churches and local government all canceled operations, were a good deal more benign. But an expectation of the “snowicaine” had been paved by computer-generated models that snowed worst-case scenarios with two feet of snow covering Independence Hall, and best case outcomes still including 12 inches precluding anything but PennDOT snowplows from venturing into Center City. I have no idea how the data could be followed, but it’s not a stretch to believe that more people are watching TV, and responding to commercials by buying things, when the ominous approach of a dangerous winter storm is the lead story of the evening news.

Three things should have told us that media warnings of this storm, and the accompanying exhortations to stay home and “be safe” at all costs, were greatly overblown. The first is today’s date, March 14, 2017, with exactly seven days of winter remaining. When has anyone been stuck in the snow shortly before St. Paddy’s Day, and how often has a major storm struck after Daylight Savings Time (this year on March 12) took effect? Even when the skies cloud up, the sun is high in the sky until 6 pm these days, and that does not bode well for advanced snow accumulation. No doubt the weather-caster whose previous job could have been on the cover of Cosmopolitan had an explanation, but did it outweigh our collective experience with something called spring? I doubt it.

The second reason for doubt was the nature of winter this year. President’s Day weekend on February 18–20 was the warmest on record, to the extent I rode my motorcycle to central Pennsylvania with my wife in passenger position, and it was positively hot by the time we arrived in Annville in Lebanon County, making us shed two layers of bike clothing before having lunch and a (light) beer before riding back to Philadelphia. Weeks of abnormally warm winter weather had warmed the ground to the extent that a long-term freeze was impossible. This fact was also lost on the safety authorities.

The third reason for informed doubt that was the media’s track record in forecasting winter storms this year. When I came home late on the evening of February 8 after an orchestra rehearsal in Manayunk, the streets were deserted, window wipers were up on all the cars, and the state store was full of revelers counting on the next morning off. They were not disappointed, even though not a flake of snow was falling by daybreak, the roads were empty, and I had no difficulty finding parking directly across from federal court in Philadelphia, because the media, similar to the Pope’s visit, had scared everyone off from Center City. Even the court appearance I had driven into town for was canceled. Despite the prime location of the US Attorney’s Office (one block south of the courthouse), no representative of that office could be found to attend my client’s arraignment. They were all at home in the suburbs, despite the SUV in the garage. As for my client, she had no difficulty coming into town, despite recent brain surgery that has affected her sense of balance.

Why do people accept warnings of an impending snow-related disaster when their own experience and recent events all point in the other direction? I suspect that the answer is the power of consensus in the age of Social Media. If everyone takes the storm report seriously, and acts accordingly, then nobody needs to go to work, and nobody needs to feel uncomfortable about staying home, as the media has approved this course of action as decent — consistent with caring about the safety of family and loved ones.

But groupthink has its costs, among them the ability to venture out without certainty we will get to our destination, but with the knowledge we probably will if we look well ahead down the road and don’t panic. This lesson applies to many aspects of life and work, but nobody who stayed at home today learned it. Dealing with risk was always part of winter, and the relief of getting home safely, despite the odds, created a certain confidence in our ability to deal with adversity in general, whatever the season. When the slightest amount of trouble closes schools, when there’s never a slushy walk to the bus stop because someone might fall and get hurt, we lose something greater than winter. We lose the ability to deal with the unexpected, which remains inevitable in this life.

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