AS NATURAL DISASTERS go, snow storms don't rank very high, and in total numbers are way down on the list (there really is one) behind tornadoes, typhoons, earthquakes and floods. As political disasters, however, they rank considerably higher, as was graphically proven this week in Chicago, "the city that works." Mayor Michael Bilandic's primary defeat at the relatively inexperienced hands of Jane Byrne was as shocking to him and to the Daley Machine -- or the wreckage that used to be known as the Daley Machine -- as was the winter's total of 87 inches of snow. Unfortunately for Mr. Bilandic, he did not respond to the snow as a man shocked, or even as a man seriously concerned; but instead asked, in effect, "What snow?" when he was not offering false assurances that the crisis was under control.
In New York 10 years ago, John V. Lindsay, then a jaunty Republican and mayor, responded to that city's disastrous snow fall in a manner similar to Mayor Bilandic's, with quips and shrugs, and eventually suffered a similar political fate. In our own back yard more recently, Mayor Marion Barry also made the mistake of discussing the snow too lightly, and has predictably been harshly criticized for doing so.
There is, of course, a point in a major snow storm after which a city official can become a hero merely by certifying the disaster as "national," then getting on the horn to the White House, and appearing on television in mittens as simply another beleaguered citizen. Up to that point, however, the mayor is supposed to be the person in charge; and it is both amazing and telling how often a few tons of snow bring out the worst in our urban leaders, along with several questions:
For one thing, there's the perennial-boring-reasonable question of why certain cities such as Chicago, New York and our own, all of which have seen snow before, cannot deal with the stuff when they see it again. If the Russians can forecast an earthquake -- as they just did -- and prepare accordingly, it can't be too much to ask a place like little old Washington to stop squealing and sighing every winter, like one of Tennessee Williams' overage coquettes, and learn to dig out.
Then there's the question of political horse sense, of which Chicago's Mayor Bilandic seems to have shown the least. Not only did he appear on television in praise of his nonexistent "snow command"; he also awarded a no-bid contract to a party loyalist for a snow-removal campaign that turned out to be as effective as Mr. Bilandic's own.
But the most interesting question, finally, is why these officials cannot seem to grasp a genuine crisis in human terms. With all the long-range financial and social problems that regularly besiege our cities, a snow storm is comparatively short-lived. Yet in its own sudden, dramatic way it is also emblematic of all the threats and discomforts of city oife. It is astonishing that some of the people who spend most of their time, and much of ours, talking about problem solving cannot recognize a real problem when if falls at their feet.