WASHINGTON DAYS; Making a mighty avalanche out of a snow flurry

It's that time of year again. When grown men glance nervously and constantly at the heavens, when local newscasters adopt a tone suggesting that a few dozen Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles are at that moment headed towards the capital of the free world, and when the populace strips supermarket shelves bare in an attempt to avoid Armageddon. Washington, in other words, is about to receive its first snow of the winter.

After days of advance publicity, the traumatic event occurred on Thursday, closing schools, allowing federal workers to take the day off, and sweeping all other news aside. Now you might have thought we'd have learnt to handle this sort of thing. Exactly a year ago, the Blizzard of 96 struck, dumping two feet of snow and paralysing the city for a week. But despite the virtual absence in the bankrupt District of Columbia of a single functioning snow plough, we survived. This time, however, everyone knew in advance it wouldn't be more than two inches. But why let facts get in the way of a media-generated panic ?

What makes the fuss doubly absurd is that unlike its British equivalent, American weather is often genuinely exciting. Last weekend in DC, T- shirts were the order of the hour as the temperature hit a record 23C. Four days later we were 28 degrees cooler. This is a land of climatic extremes, of hurricanes, tornados, droughts, dustbowls, and Biblical floods. Take the last two weeks out West. Great swathes of California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state have been designated disaster areas after once-in-a-century flooding which caused $2bn (pounds 1.1bn) of damage in California alone. They even had to close the casinos in Reno, Nevada. That is serious.

Out on the northern plains a blast of Arctic air has reduced the temperature in Bismarck, North Dakota, to around -22C. With 30mph winds, the wind chill reading is -60C.

But DC's weather forecasters don't mention this truly newsworthy freeze, as they hype the petty inconvenience closer to home. Their advice veers from the bossy to the fatuous. Do drive carefully, wear warmer clothes, allow extra time to get to work. But such statements of the obvious pale beside the pearls dispensed by another of their number. If you go out in the car, he counselled, take emergency supplies, including water, biscuits and tinned food. All this in Metro Washington, one of the most affluent and thickly populated areas in the country, where you're never more than 100 yards from a Volvo station wagon.

And the hysteria will doubtless continue. America being America, safety is sought in gadgetry and statistics. Since last year, DC has installed a computerised monitoring system that tracks pavement temperatures across the city. No less comforting was news that in the Maryland suburbs, 350 workers spread 56,000 tons of salt, while their opposite numbers in northern Virginia had spread a combination of salt and liquid calcium chloride on 13,000 lane-miles of highway. When you're stuck in the commuting traffic jam, such numbers have a soothing, hypnotic effect. Who knows? They might even help us over a Russian nuclear attack.

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