Snowmageddon

The federal government should have done more to help Washington during last week’s weather emergency.

Friday marked the first day back to work for the federal government after four and a half days of unplanned leave, allowing the capital's workers to begin their slow thaw. The unprecedented snowstorms that pounded Washington D.C. were predictably tough on residents and commuters. No one expected the region, lacking the well-organized fleets of snowplows and salt trucks common in cities north of the Mason-Dixon line, to come out unscathed. But neither the local nor federal leaders made the best of what they had to work with.

Born, raised, and schooled in the northeast, I am guilty of poking fun at Washington's stereotypically southern inability to deal with the snow storm. Until I started working in D.C., I hadn't had a snow day since I was seventeen. Yet, there is something terribly disturbing about the president's response to the snow emergency in D.C. Hundreds of thousands of area residents were without electricity, water, and heat, but President Obama's only reference to the storm was at the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting, where he chuckled about "Snowmageddon."

Though it has a headstrong local government of its own, Washington, D.C. is simultaneously the seat of our federal government, which employs nearly 300,000 workers in D.C. alone, excluding military personnel. Add in the government contractors, lawyers, lobbyists, advocates, and think-tankers that couldn't report to work on Monday (two days after Round I) or Thursday (the day after Round II), and the city was at a complete standstill for nearly an entire work week.

While it is understandable that D.C. would not have the snow-removal infrastructure to match its northern counterparts when such enormous snowstorms happen so rarely, the District's leadership could have done better. Walking through Dupont Circle Thursday evening, I witnessed no less than 5 cars stuck in a major D.C. intersection. I struggled to get to work myself on Friday, even on foot. The only produce I could purchase at my local grocery superstore was one lonely, bruised yellow onion. Milk, eggs? Forget it-it would be faster for me to walk to the nearest farm than to wait for the next delivery.

But the effects of the snow storm go far beyond personal hazard and inconvenience. Who should be held responsible?

According to the Office of Personnel Management, the government loses approximately $100 million per day of closure. A less quantifiable cost: the national-security risk of having "non-essential" staff lose four and a half days of work in a row. Should the government, then, have pushed some of its resources into the pockets of Mayor Fenty's office? Would the defiantly independent District accept? It certainly pays a lot of lip service to its ability to handle its own affairs. The District's attitude has been that "it tried," but it did not succeed: a minimal test of competence would rightly include the clearing of the main thoroughfares of the city, which by Friday had still not been completed and forced thousands of commuters to sit in gridlock in the morning and evening commutes.

The white out around the White House seems to have blinded President Obama from his responsibility as a facilitator in what could rightly be described as a national snow emergency. While no one should expect Mr. Obama to become deeply consumed in snow-removal efforts with so much else on his plate, he could have asked subordinates to offer a helping hand with the unusual effort.

Even though the District lacks the salt, plows, and snow removal crews that other cities have, it still has a number of useful resources that it could have deployed under stronger leadership. Washington, D.C. has one of the largest urban police forces in the country. Why were they not helping to avoid traffic backlogs by directing people through the single lanes left behind by the few plows that were employed? Where was parking enforcement-one of any Washingtonian's most familiar connections to local government-when countless cars blocked intersections and parked illegally, preventing further snow removal efforts?

While he did not have principal responsibility for dealing with the storms and their aftermath, President Obama can rightly be reprimanded for not responding properly when his government faced an unprecedented natural emergency here in D.C. That the District didn't get its response right does not come as a surprise; what is a surprise, however, is that it didn't ask for help, and conversely, that help from above was not offered. It seems that coordination between the federal and local levels of government was extremely poor, especially after the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina. During their daily conference call involving dozens of federal officials, the Office of Personnel Management decided to open the Federal Government on Friday despite the obvious fact that major roadways wouldn't be able to handle the traffic. And knowing this, local officials did nothing to manage the totally predictable gridlock. Friday could have been a free opportunity to test emergency management plans for the capital area. Instead, it was a disaster of its own.

 

Elizabeth A. Sterling is a research associate at The Nixon Center.