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Northerners: Washingtonians aren’t winter weather wimps, we’re just uniquely vulnerable

Washington on Tuesday. The East Coast is still digging out from the large storm that hit over the weekend, breaking snowfall records. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

When winter storms batter the D.C. area and shut it down for days, Northerners often laugh and poke fun at how soft we supposedly are. For example, we published a guest commentary Wednesday titled, “Dear Washington, this is ridiculous. Go back to school. Love, a Minnesotan.” It was well-written and provocative, and it raised a topic worthy of discussion.

But such arguments reveal a lack of understanding about Washington, our climate, our demographics and our infrastructure. Not to mention, Northerners have challenges of their own coping with weather that is out of character.

How well any region responds to hazardous weather depends on how well adapted they are to said conditions. In Minnesota, dealing with snow and bitter cold is a way of life. In Washington, our winters are mild but fickle. While it snows here each winter, its occurrence is irregular enough that each event is a new adventure.

Most winters, it simply doesn’t snow with the frequency  for us to truly get the hang of it. Complicating any effective response, we have a significant transient population that arrives in the region each year from states and countries where it seldom, if ever, snows.

It is totally rational to freak out about snow in Washington

As we receive less snow than places such as Minnesota, we understandably don’t commit the same resources for snow removal. So on those rare occasions in which we are knocked down, it takes longer to bounce back.

Bill French, president of W.L. French Excavating Corp., drove from North Billerica, Mass., to assist with the snow removal. (Video: Aaron Davis / The Washington Post)

The very characteristics of snow we get is different than most places in the North. Minnesotans or New Englanders may laugh when our schools shut down because of an inch or two of snow. But our snow, often mixed with sleet and freezing rain, tends to fall with temperatures very close to 32 degrees, meaning that it often melts and refreezes, turning into a sheet of ice. Their snow tends to be fine and powdery, laying a smooth and navigable foundation on roads, which persists for much of the winter.

Based on its very demographics, our region is more vulnerable to disruption when storms strike. We have a bigger and denser population, so more resources are required to respond.

Finally, it is a myth that Northern areas are immune to winter disruption. Just two winters ago, during the great polar vortex outbreak, schools in Minnesota shut down for days because of cold weather. “School districts around the state are starting to make up days cancelled due to the extreme cold,” wrote CBS Minnesota. “In some cases, school was closed as many as six days this winter because of the sub-zero temperatures.”

In any climate where weather outside the norm occurs, society is disrupted. None of this is to say that each location shouldn’t work to take a hard look at how well it prepares for and respond to winter weather events and try to, as much as possible, lessen their effects.

D.C. officials don’t want to hear how fast they clear snow in New York City

But two to three feet of snow — the amount the recent Snowzilla unloaded on us — is an amount greater from one storm than we receive in an average winter and one of the biggest on record. Those waist-deep amounts are greater than most places in Minnesota ever get from a single storm, while Washington had something called the Atlantic Ocean to draw moisture from. And they’re going to cause a few problems in a dense and sprawling metro region of more than 6 million people.

More on Snowzilla:

The Blizzard of 2016 from space compared to other great Northeast snowstorms

In too deep: The craziest snow depths and drifts from Snowzilla

Lower-than-expected D.C. snowfall total raises questions about measurement

The forecast was stellar in almost every way

This snowstorm was easy to predict. Here’s why that’s not normal.

Where Snowzilla fits into D.C.’s top 10 snowstorms