And it was New York that restarted its buses and subways first, triggering rounds of grousing among Washingtonians infuriated that a blizzard could turn the nation’s capital into a relative backwater.
“This is a city of wimps,” said Mark Plotkin, the political commentator who moved to Washington in 1964. “It still astounds me.”
Others tried to be more understanding.
Joe Englert, the owner of 10 bars in the District, spent the weekend with his business partners shuttling employees and supplies to keep his beer taps flowing.
“I’m going to give D.C. a break here,” Englert said. “We’re much more of a car culture, and our culture puts us behind New York. You don’t have to park there during storm. I hate to be reasonable, but that’s the truth.”
Beyond culture, the resources available to the two cities also make a difference.
New York’s $77 million snow-removal budget allowed it to dispatch more than 2,000 pieces of equipment and more than 4,600 workers across the city’s 302 square miles. On average, New York contends with 25 inches of snow every year, nearly twice what Washington gets.
With 68 square miles to cover, the District has no blueprint for handling a storm like last weekend’s blizzard. Instead, the plan’s worst-case scenario is for 18 inches of snow, less than the 22 inches measured in parts of the city. The District’s $6.2 million snow-removal budget is paying for more than 700 pieces of equipment.
“The D.C. area — both the city and surrounding areas — are inexperienced with snow, period,” said Terry Lynch, a Mount Pleasant activist. “That applies to the populace for the most part and much of the workforce responsible for handling it.”
Even with a week of blizzard forecasts, the District’s planning seemed scattershot. A friend of the District’s head of homeland security reached out and offered a giant ice-melter, and the city accepted. An employee at the Department of Public Works recalled the name of a snow-removal contractor from Massachusetts that the city hired in 2010, and the city offered the contractor a retainer.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who has oversight of snow operations, said the District needs to keep a stable of major contractors on retainer for megastorms to clear walkways, bus stops and fire hydrants. But she said the city government seems to accept that it can prepare only so much for rare events.
“If we planned for more than 18 inches, what that would do is say that we would have to keep resources at hand that we only use every, whatever, 10 years,” Cheh said.
When it comes to managing the weather — in particular, the snow — a mix of inferiority and defensiveness pervades Washington, as was evident during a news conference Monday when District officials were asked why New York was first to open schools and resume public transportation.
“A totally unfair comparison,” bristled Chris Geldart, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s director of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. He then questioned whether “it was a safe situation for those students to get there? That’s Mayor [Bill] de Blasio’s call.”
By Tuesday afternoon, as the District was preparing to open its school system, de Blasio’s team was crowing that city workers had plowed enough snow to fill Yankee stadium “to the top” 66 times.
On Wednesday, Geldart said he was too busy digging out the District and preparing for an overnight freeze to compare how the two cities responded to the blizzard.
“Honestly, I don’t care,” he said. “I have no idea what’s going on in New York, how they’re doing their removal, how far they are. We’re two totally different cities. I really don’t have the time.”
Chris Policano belongs to that slice of humanity that has resided in both cities, though his sonorous New York-ese betrays his Queens roots. When he moved to the District in 2009, he struggled to comprehend how Washingtonians appeared to panic at the mere forecast of snow.
“At first, my feeling was, ‘This town is full of wusses,’ ” said Policano, a senior staffer at a labor union who lived in the District for six years before returning to New York. “But then you come to enjoy being a wuss.”
The martinis he drank at the Jefferson Hotel during one storm helped change his view.
“I do kind of miss it,” Policano said, before switching gears. “No, not really. Enough. It’s snow. Let’s move on. Let’s find a way. New York definitely handles it better.”
Phil Pannell, a Democratic activist who lives in Southeast Washington, said that when he moved to Washington in the 1970s, he was “shocked” by the “people stampeding to the grocery stores” before snow storms.
But his expectations changed as he grew accustomed to the District’s rhythms.
“Now I go stampeding to the grocery store, too,” he said.
Staff writers Aaron C. Davis and Michael Laris contributed to this report.