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Steven Pearlstein

Washington, The Nation's Weather Wimp

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, February 25, 2005; Page E01

Hardly a flake had fallen yesterday morning before every school in the Washington region was closed. Thousands of parents were forced to skip a day of work. Business meetings were postponed, events canceled, trains delayed and government workers sent home early. All day long, TV news crews whipped up fears about "treacherous driving" even as the scenes behind them showed traffic moving smoothly on snowless roads.

Can someone explain to me why the capital of the richest and most powerful country in the world needs to be shut down by the mere threat of an eight-inch snowstorm? Are people in Buffalo or Providence so much smarter or tougher that a routine event that barely causes them to miss a step brings Washington to its knees?

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I spent the day yesterday listening as officials from all the major jurisdictions described why they had absolutely no choice but to close the schools. The narrow country roads. The little 5-year-olds forced to walk on unshoveled sidewalks. The poor teachers who have to commute in from Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The buses so tightly scheduled that any weather delays wreak havoc.

As you probably figured out already, I'm a New Englander driven nuts by Washington's weather wimpiness. And during my 17 years here, it's only gotten worse. That, despite the fact that most new cars now have front-wheel drive while the number of SUVs and other four-wheel-drive vehicles has exploded. And despite the fact that resources and technology devoted to snow removal have only improved. Thanks to GPS devices, for example, the regional director of the Virginia Department of Transportation can sit at his desk and call up a map that shows the location of every truck in his fleet and the last time a plow or sander went down every street in his domain.

What we are witnessing, I believe, is a self-reinforcing cycle of falling expectations and herd mentality. Because of increased coordination among officials in all local jurisdictions -- normally a good thing -- closings in one community now subtly encourage closings everywhere else. And with each new round of closings, people feel less urgency about the need to clear streets and sidewalks, or learn how to drive in snow, or develop the tricks necessary for maintaining their daily routines. This degradation in skills, in turn, demands more closings.

The essential lesson of welfare reform, of school reform, of corporate reengineering is that if you set expectations high and give people the necessary tools, they will rise to the challenge. Consistent with the Bush administration philosophy, that insight should guide a new strategy of preemption when it comes to snow.

Public works directors need to understand they'll be out of a job if they can't keep major roads open and safe during run-of-the-mill storms, as most of them do already.

And employers -- including schools -- need to impress upon employees the need to have a contingency plan for getting to work when it snows, even if it means arranging special car pools or taking public transportation or, if all else fails, trading in the Toyota for a used Subaru.

Is it too much to ask people who choose to live in rural places to walk or drive their kids to bus pickup points, or arrange car pools, on days when snow makes country roads unsafe? Inconvenient? Sure. But not as much as having kids at home all day.

And why not invite local high-tech companies to develop simulators and computer games so people (and bus drivers!) can practice driving in snow?

Maybe, in the end, there will still be 15 percent of students or teachers or employees who still can't get where they need to go. But isn't that better than closing things unnecessarily for the other 85 percent?

Despite what you hear from the snow defeatists, this isn't a matter of safety, it's a matter of preparedness, ingenuity and will. In a regional economy that produces a billion dollars worth of goods and services each workday, cutting and running at the first snowflake results in a significant loss of productivity and output. Worse, it teaches our kids to be wimps.

Steven Pearlstein will definitely be at work today. He can be reached at pearlsteins@washpost.com.


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