Snowquester bust: Decision to close schools and offices made before flakes fell

March 6, 2013

They shut down the schools and the government for what turned out in much of the area to be light rain and a bit of a breeze.

But when “they” — beleaguered bureaucrats, politicians and educators — made that choice in the small of the night, all the experts were telling them that a big storm with an even bigger name was bearing down on the Washington region, preparing to snarl roads, snuff out power and cause all manner of chaos.

The pressure was enormous: Whether they called it Snowquester or Winter Storm Saturn, the nonstop media storm-mongering had raised expectations to supermarket-shelf-clearing levels. At 11 p.m. Tuesday, the dean of Washington weather forecasters, ABC Channel 7’s Bob Ryan, tweeted, “If any school in area is open tomorrow, somebody is nuts.”

Thirteen hours later, Ryan backtracked: “The strong March sun and warm ground yesterday taking a toll on snow . . . Exact rain-snow line always drives us nuts.”

But by that time, every major school system in the region had shut down, as had the federal and most local governments and courts. Did they pull the plug too early? Did they listen to the wrong experts? Did they act out of a surplus of bureaucratic caution, eager to avoid blame if they sent workers and schoolchildren into a hellacious storm?

In a city that hasn’t seen significant snowfall in years, Wednesday’s snow day almost had a nostalgic air at one of the District’s best hills for sledding: Fort Reno. (Note: This video was shot using the “8mm” iPhone effect app.) (Brad Horn/The Washington Post)

All they knew for certain was that no matter what they did, the potential for outrage was rich: Taxpayers might be miffed that governments closed and lost a day of productivity for a storm that fizzled. Conversely, parents and commuters might be equally outraged if schools had opened only to shut down early or if governments had made workers come in and then sent them home into a traffic mess of majestic proportions.

The intense build-up to this storm, on TV and on weather blogs and Web sites, had officials eager to make a decision Tuesday evening. In Fairfax County, Jeffrey Platenberg, the school system’s assistant superintendent for transportation and facilities, planned to issue his yea or nay on canceling school by 7 p.m. But all afternoon Tuesday, the contrast between the forecasts and the facts outside his window gave him second thoughts.

“It was above 50 degrees outside at 1700 hours, with road temperatures above 60 and bridges above 50,” he said. He put off his decision.

Platenberg consulted with transportation and emergency management officials and the National Weather Service. Then he got up at 3 a.m. and went out in his front-wheel-drive sedan.

“It doesn’t handle the snow very well, so it gives me a good gauge for how difficult the drive may be,” he said.

Then, gut check time. At 4:12 a.m., just in time to keep the system’s 1,200 buses from heading out onto the roads, he closed the schools. “You can’t call them back,” he said. “That’s like turning around the Queen Mary.” The deciding factor was the idea of young, inexperienced high school drivers out on frozen stuff.

The cascading series of decisions to close began Tuesday night with a conference call at 9 gathering government and school leaders. The advice from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments was to be cautious, said Ron Kirby, the council’s transportation planning director.

“Everything went up to a new level of caution after the Jan. 26, 2011, storm,” Kirby said. That big thundersnow paralyzed the region as the federal government sent workers home into the brunt of a rush-hour storm. Since then, chastened officials have erred on the side of shutting down ahead of any significant snow.

About 11 p.m., dire forecasts — one TV station said Northwest Washington could see up to a foot of snow — and impending bedtimes led first school systems and then governments to announce closings.

D.C. schools were the first system inside the Capital Beltway to shut down. Others soon followed.

“We made our decisions based on, unfortunately, faulty weather predictions,” said Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). “You can’t really blame the government officials for using the data the scientists gave them.”

Ribiero said media forecasts “did tend to hype it up a little bit, but what we look at is the data. We have to take that as valid.”

Those forecasts were plain wrong. “This was the biggest bust in the history of the Capital Weather Gang,” said The Washington Post’s chief meteorologist, Jason Samenow. He said the major mistake was to accept computer models that said the amount of moisture in the storm would make up for the warmth of the air below.

Every forecaster in town overestimated the storm; at 3 a.m., the Weather Service still predicted eight to 10 inches of snow for the District.

In Prince William County, one of the first systems to close, transportation director Ed Bishop said his boss, Superintendent Steven Walts, hates to shut down based only on forecasts.

“I kid him and say, ‘If you can’t see it or step in it, you don’t want to mess with it,’ ” Bishop said. This time, Walts was able to say, “Look out the window; it’s snowing.”

Inside the Beltway, there was no such evidence. After another Council of Governments call at 3 a.m., the top brass of the Prince George’s County school system held a 3:45 a.m. call that ended with the decision to close. “We will always side on caution as opposed to whether it’s convenient,” said spokesman Briant Coleman.

Despite the schools’ decision, the county government remained open. Brad Seamon, chief administrative officer in Prince George’s, and County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) considered forecasts, traffic and the cost of shutting down — about $1.5 million, Seamon said — as well as the memory of having closed for Hurricane Sandy, which was mostly a fizzle in the county.

At 5 a.m., with a forecast of two to five inches that sounded manageable to Seamon, they decided to stay the course, especially because the federal government was closing, which would ease traffic.

That fact drove the opposite decision in Montgomery County. “When I woke up today and heard the federal government was closed, there was no way we could keep administrative offices open,” said Larry Bowers, chief operating officer of the county schools. “Try to explain to 4,000 employees why you’re opening up and the federal government is closed.”

But Bowers, who has worked for the system for three decades, said he might have reached a different conclusion years ago. In the 1980s, Montgomery never shut down, he said. Bowers remembers a convoy of plow trucks heading up Interstate 270 to clear a path for buses to pick up sixth-graders who had been stranded at an outdoor education camp for a week.

“We’ve gotten wimpier,” he said.

As ever, the same decisions that drive some people to distraction seem perfectly sane to others. Adam Eidinger, a publicist in the District and father of a third-grader, skipped work to stay home with his daughter and said closing schools was “a complete overreaction to the weather that’s actually been encouraged by a culture of laziness. . . . Working families are terribly burdened by this. So why does the government feel like it can just shut down?”

Eidinger suggested a simple rule: Close only if there are at least three inches of snow.

But Evelyn Boyd Simmons, mother of two students at the District’s Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, was thrilled to have “a completely guilt-free day home with the kids.” The closings made sense, she said, because “so many people who make D.C. tick live outside of D.C. Hindsight is always 20-20.”

In Fairfax, where the county held off any decision until just before 11 a.m., County Executive Edward L. Long Jr. looked at the forecasts but didn’t decide to close until he saw what was really falling from the sky.

In Alexandria, where the only accumulation occurred in rain puddles, Rashad Young, the city manager who came on board a year ago, looked at the same evidence and came to the opposite conclusion: He kept the doors open.

Was that because he’s new to the Washington area and brings along the weather values of a hardier place? Young hails from Dayton, Ohio, and thinks that public employees owe it to the public to stay on the job.

“I lean toward the philosophy that we’re the city government and we should be at work,” Young said. “As I was coming in this morning, I saw businesses are open, folks at CVS are working, folks at McDonald’s are working, we’ve got service people working who typically make less than those of us in City Hall. They get to work; I think we ought to be open, too.”Emma Brown, Lynh Bui, Michael Alison Chandler, Michael DeBonis, Caitlin Gibson, John Kelly, Corinne Reilly, Brigid Schulte, T. Rees Shapiro, Patricia Sullivan, Ovetta Wiggins and Mari-Jane Williams contributed to this report.

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