Some Perspective On "Snowmaggedon"

[ Posted Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 – 17:52 UTC ]

Washington D.C. is notoriously hysterical when it snows, I have to say. Barack Obama pointed this out last year, and immediately offended a few folks in the Nation's Capital -- who prefer to think of themselves as bravely fighting snowstorms that would make Nanook of the North tremble in his mukluks. When the reality is that the biggest snowstorm in Washington would be casually remarked upon as: "Oh, it snowed Tuesday" in the more frigid states in our Union.

So forgive me if I can't get all that impressed over the recent "snowmageddon." Call me a crotchety old grump if you must, but the fact remains that people in hardier climates deal with two feet of snow on a regular basis during each and every winter, and they never get their city in the national news as a result. Whereas D.C. falls into a quivering swoon if more than two inches falls during one storm.

Now, you may say that it is easy for me -- living in sunny California as I do -- to criticize. And you would be right. I walked outside today in shorts and a T-shirt and sandals, I have to admit. But I grew up in the Washington area, and know how to deal with snow. You deal with snow, you see, by moving where it doesn't snow. That's what's worked for me, at any rate. Californians, for the most part, have the right attitude towards snow, which can best be expressed by the statement: "You visit snow to play in it, you don't shovel it out of your driveway." Ski resorts are a few hours from the coast -- meaning you can always drive up there and ski, if you'd like, but only should the mood strike you. Here is a shocker for pretty much the rest of the country (the non-desert areas, at least) -- it is almost impossible to buy a windshield ice scraper out here, because they simply do not understand what you are asking for. I'm not making this up.

But enough bragging. Let's take a trip down Memory Lane, instead. "When I was a kid, we walked five miles to school and back, in deep snow -- uphill, both ways...." Or something like that.

Allow me to take you back to February of 1979, and the Big Snow that year in the D.C. area. For some reason, this storm hasn't been mentioned much, probably due to the fact that the "Knickerbocker Storm" of 1922 has a way cooler name.

February started with some snow that year. The first snowy headline from the Washington Post for the month read: "Biggest Snow in Five Years Punishes Region; Biggest Winter Storm in Five Years Snarls Area Traffic, Closes Schools" -- for a snowfall of five to eight inches. What's amusing in these stories are always the attitudes of those who have seen real snow. Here's an example, from the same article:

As other commuters chugged by, Mary Clair Turnbull a medical secretary at Providence Hospital, pulled off the Capital Beltway and was lying beside her car on a blanket adjusting the chains on her rear tires.

"This is the third time I've stopped," she said resignedly. "The chains just don't seem to be tight enough... But I can handle it myself. I grew up in the country. I'm a tough Pennsylvania girl."

One week later, it snowed again, approximately the same half-a-foot it had snowed before. This time the headlines ran: "Severe Snowstorm Immobilizes D.C. Area" and "The Great Snow's Woes; The Great Snow Brings Tales of Woe; Tales of Cupidity, Kindness on the Long March Home." The storm was variously described using such words as: crippling, major, smothering, immobilizing, unexpectedly severe, colossal [traffic snarls], and very hazardous [traffic, again].

Almost three hundred cars were abandoned on the streets of D.C., and people were now comparing the storm to 1966, or 1961. And capitalism was meeting the challenge [Note to our younger readers, to explain the last phrase in this excerpt: in 1979 cell phones as we know them today simply did not exist. I know, it's hard to believe, but there it is.]:

Yesterday's tales of the snowstorm were kaleidoscopic: A man in a jogging suit selling shots of Hennessey brandy to stranded commuters on K Street for $2 each; Southeast Washington teen-agers helping to push mired autos; Georgetown University students selling beer to motorists on Key Bridge at 50 cents a pop; skiers, including one who was carrying a brief case, whizzing past stalled motorists; a young woman on M Street NW holding a sign that said, "Fifty cents for bathroom... 50 cents for a phone call to let your loved ones know you're safe."

Because, after all, if you're attempting to cross an icy, snowy bridge, everyone knows that what you really need is a beer or a shot of brandy. Heh. Ironically, the only ones who could still get around were the farmers who were in the midst of a gigantic protest on The Mall at the time -- because they had thought to bring their tractors to the protest.

But Washington still didn't know what was in store for it. Hence the premature usage of the title "The Great Snow." Because the next Sunday night, it started to snow yet again. It snowed throughout the wee hours, and when people awoke Monday morning, two or three feet of new snow covered the ground. Luckily for all involved, it was Presidents' Day. Meaning schools were already closed, and it was already a federal holiday (which, in D.C., means the city pretty much shuts down for the day anyway, snow or no snow).

As kids, we were overjoyed. We got the whole week off school, as a result. This may have been due to the fact that our county had loaned out most of its snow-clearing equipment to a neighboring county at the time, or the fact that while the streets were largely cleared by Thursday nobody wanted to waste money firing up the boilers in the schools for one day... but as kids, we certainly didn't care.

This was a big storm, indeed, for not just Washington but the whole East Coast. It caused lots of problems in the Southeast, before it even got to the mid-Atlantic region -- the airport in Atlanta, Georgia closed due to snow, for instance. It was so cold that four of the five Great Lakes were completely frozen over ("for the first time in modern history"). And this time, Washington reached back to the Knickerbocker storm for comparison ("heaviest snowstorm here in 57 years"). Looting was reported in D.C., the suburbs, and Baltimore. Snow plows were getting stuck in the snow.

Showing no sense of irony, the new storm was also christened "The Great Snow of '79," although it would later be widely known as "The Presidents' Day Snow." One Washington Post writer used the term "snow-mania," but nobody thought to use "snowmageddon" back then -- probably because you didn't throw around terminology like that in the depths of the Cold War quite so easily as we do today. In fact, "snowmageddon" was likely coined in December of 2008 (at least, as far as Lexis/Nexis is concerned), in Montreal. A Canadian Television News report at the time quoted an unidentified man on 12/28/08, saying "I think they called it snowmageddon or something like that."

I don't have any real conclusion to this story, other than, as previously mentioned, to do my impression of Grandpa in the rocking chair cackling: "You kids -- this ain't nothin'! You shoulda seen the blizzard of '79 -- now that was a real snowstorm!"

And to remind people in Washington that there actually are other places on Earth that get two or three feet in one storm all the time without making the news. So, while rehearsing your own private stories of the Big Blizzard of '10, for future use, just remember that some people simply won't be all that impressed. From one of the news reports in 1979, comes the following:

From beneath the snowcapped cornices of the Soviet Embassy, three men carrying cameras sallied forth onto the endless whiteness of the 16th Street yesterday morning.

"It's just like Siberia, isn't it?" a whimsical passerby called.

"Yes, it's just like home," one of the Soviets answered.

Even more amusing was one woman from Montreal, who summed up the situation in 1979 with a dismissive: "C'est rien." Translation: "This is nothing."


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


5 Comments on “Some Perspective On "Snowmaggedon"”

  1. [1] 
    LewDan wrote:

    When I lived in Virginia they once shut down the state because of an anticipated 3-inch snowfall. Being from Chicago where 3-inches won't even slow down traffic, I was amused. Until I discovered that there was probably only one snow plow in the whole county.

    We went through that too in Chicago once, resulting in stranded cars on the freeways, an entire new city administration, the sacking of every TV weatherman (save one) and "Snow Command."

    The level of panic seems to be inversely proportional to familiarity and preparedness. You should see Chicagoans when there's fog! San Franciscans however all wear x-ray glasses (or think they do) but freak worse than D.C. over snow on the ground.

    Though I must admit the occasional seventy-plus car pileups on those foggy expressways made me doubt the sanity of Californians far more than I ever did of those in Washington D.C.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    To everyone -

    Sorry I've been remiss in answering comments the past week or so. I promise that I have still read every comment, though -- some lively debates going on, I see! I will get better at the comments soon, you have my word.

    LewDan -

    The tule ("TOO-lee") fog in the Central Valley is where most of those pileups occur, and it is quite deadly at times on I-5, you're right.

    Californians are, in general, terrible drivers in terrible weather. Part of the problem is they get so little practice at it. It doesn't rain here for like nine months straight, and the first rain of the season, everyone has completely forgotten how to drive in the rain (not that they really knew all that much to begin with). "First rain" of the year, I try to stay off all roads.

    As for snow, if it ever snowed here, I wouldn't just stay off the roads, I'd barricade myself in my house. When you grow up never practicing driving on snow, ice, or sleet, you have NO idea what to do behind the wheel when it happens.

    CA drivers have lots of other problems as well, which is why there's a rumor that there's a sign at the border which says "Now leaving California. Please resume normal driving habits."



  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    LewDan -

    Forgot to say -- worst fog I ever drove through was around St. Louis. 200 straight miles of pea soup. Interstate was down to like 25-30 mph. I drove over the Mississippi River, and hadn't even realized I was on a bridge. The arch was less than a quarter-mile away, and I didn't see a glimpse of it.


  4. [4] 
    Moderate wrote:

    I second LewDan's point about familiarity. We have the same issues with snow in London, the Scots and people up north think we're "soft" because whenever we get snow there's all sorts of post-apocalyptic headlines.

    Having been to Albany during the winter where there was some decent snow, when I got back I kept telling people that the snow we get over here is nothing.

    Heck, if we compared with REALLY frigid parts of the US we'd be shocked.

  5. [5] 
    LewDan wrote:


    CA drivers may have issues but at least they don't participate in government mandated suicide pacts like Texans do.

    There the off-ramps on 70 mph expressways precede the on-ramps from 30 mph service-roads, and have the right-of-way.

    Believe me, who needs coffee in the mourning with the adrenalin rush from the daily mourning death dash to the office; trying to get on a freeway at 30 mph while yielding to (dodging) the 70 mph kamikaze coming out of your blind-spot 50-feet away and aimed up your tailpipe.

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