Out of America: Going quietly barmy in face of the blizzard

Click to follow
WASHINGTON - What is it with this place and snow? The demise of the Soviet Union has lifted the threat of direct nuclear attack. For a whiff of the atmosphere however, you just need to be here when bad winter weather is forecast. It is one of America's minor mysteries why the capital - which claims to possess one of the greatest per capita concentrations of brain power anywhere - is regularly brought to its knees by an inch or two of snow.

The sharpest lawyer, the brazen lobbyist, the most experienced federal official: a mere sprinkling reduces them alike to nervous wrecks. And so it was last week. The first snows of winter landed, and Washington DC went quietly barmy.

The sequence of events is unvarying. Barely has the outline of a storm system formed 2,000 miles away in the Rockies, than local weather forecasters plot the progress of the impending natural disaster. A day or two of this drumbeat of advance publicity, and the coolest souls are showing signs of severe strain. Then the storm arrives, and every other event on the face of the globe pales into insignificance.

My own rule of thumb for coverage in the Washington newspapers is one page per inch of snow that falls. Even last March's blizzard (which dumped 12 inches on Washington in just 24 hours and really was news) conformed to the formula. Last Tuesday and Wednesday three inches fell, whose mostly negligible consequences filled approximately that number of pages.

A weather drama generates a vocabulary all its own. In bewildering profusion, there are snow alerts, snow advisories, snow watches, snow warnings - and, most grave of all, the Snow Emergency. This is the real thing, declared when a few flakes actually start falling from the sky, the meteorological equivalent of Russian missiles starting their descent on Washington.

An emergency automatically triggers, inter alia, draconian parking restrictions, involving instant towaways and dollars 100 ( pounds 68) fines. The threat is not to be taken lightly. The Washington murder rate may be through the ceiling, and the city may be all but bankrupt, but the capital of the free world can operate parking regulations with the best of them.

Given the apparent threat to Washington's very existence, one might reasonably have expected a televised peroration from Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, akin to Henry V's on the eve of Agincourt. In fact, the normally voluble Ms Kelly has this time kept uncharacteristically mum - for good reason. Quite apart from the violence on the streets, the Washington Redskins football team have just completed their worst season in three decades; and by botching negotiations with the Redskins' owner, Jack Kent Cooke, Ms Kelly may go down in history as the mayor who lost the last major league sports franchise inside DC limits.

That is a separate story but, one way and another, she is not a very popular lady right now. 'Out of sight, out of mind' makes good sense for a floundering politician when the cold white stuff arrives.

And, besides, there are already enough people dispensing advice, albeit mostly breathtakingly obvious. Not a local radio or television newscaster fails to sign off with a reminder of how cold weather requires warm, dry clothes (as if you'd go out wrapped in nothing but a wet towel). My own favourite was last Wednesday's five-point 'Healthy Tips For Shovelling Snow' in the Washington Post. Tip number three - headlined 'Lift the Snow-filled Shovel Properly' - urges readers to 'bend your knees and keep your back as straight as possible'.

Such is the cumulative effect of the brainwashing, that an inch of snow assumes the dimensions of an Arctic blizzard. Driving to work becomes a feat comparable to scaling the north face of the Eiger without a safety rope.

After a while, you cannot but be infected by the mentality. On Tuesday last week, my regular annual eye check-up was due. Glancing out of the window, I saw it was snowing a little. I made the mistake of turning on the radio. Up to seven inches were on the way, the weatherman warned with the usual hyperbole, and Virginia's public offices were sending staff home early: 'If you can possibly avoid it, don't go out.'

I began to tremble. The doctor's office was only three miles away, right on the big thoroughfare of Massachusetts Avenue. Even so, was it a safe trip without the Post's recommended snow-survival kit of 'a bag of cat litter for traction, small snow shovel, warning devices (flares, triangles), ice-scraper, jump-start cables, snow brush and blanket'? I rang ahead to the doctor: was he cut off? No, came the answer, but I should take no chances. Being a reckless soul, I set off. The road was fine and, sad to report, there wasn't a distress flare in sight.

By and large, Washington just about handled its first weather crisis of the winter. But that was last week. As I write, more snow is forecast after a brief thaw. It's time to stop, and start working on my snow-shovelling technique.