If it's American snow, it's gotta be big

Rupert Cornwell reflects on a week of chaos, cold and unaccustomed quiet in the US capital
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The Independent Online
For me, the first intimation came exactly a week ago in the departure lounge at Zurich airport, as we returned from a skiing holiday. "Seems there's a big storm coming to the Eastern US," said someone, perusing the International Herald Tribune. Sure, I thought, another phoney Washington weather drama. Only this time the panic-mongers were right.

Back in DC that frigid Saturday afternoon the atmosphere was eerie, nervous yet fatalistic, as if an irresistible invading army was at the city's gates. People were glancing intermittently at a still, leaden sky. When I went to buy a few provisions, the supermarket was jammed. For the first time I bought some rock salt, a five-pound bag, which the blurb claimed could dissolve 48 times its weight in snow at a temperature of 30F. That should do the trick, I thought. A child taking on the Wehrmacht with a pop-gun would have stood a better chance.

The United States is a country of meteorological superlatives. In five years I have reported on the most destructive hurricane in modern American history (the 155mph Andrew of August 1992, which caused $20bn of damage), the Great Flood of the summer of 1993 (the Midwest's worst for 100 years), plus droughts, heatwaves, tornadoes, and sundry other acts of God. And now the Blizzard of '96.

The misfortune of Washington and the Mid-Atlantic region in winter is to be point of collision between warm air moving north from the Gulf of Mexico and arctic blasts descending from Canada, all mixed with plenty of moisture from the Atlantic. Thus are assembled the ingredients for a smorgasbord of precipitations: snow, freezing rain, sleet and hail, or various combinations of them. Most miserable is the ice storm, a Washington speciality, which in full spate produces a sinister rustling like wind through dry leaves. It turns roads and pavements into skating rinks and causes power failures by the score. Thus far, the Blizzard of '96 has generated only fine powdery snow. But never, even during the four years I lived in Moscow, have I seen so much of it in a single helping.

It started to fall around midnight on Saturday. It continued, soft and silent as a veil, through Sunday and half of Monday. By the end, in my corner of the city, 23 inches had fallen - almost two feet of the stuff, and more where it had been piled up by gusts of 35mph. Not for an instant did it stop, for 36 hours. Should the second storm, unfolding as I write, live up to billing, all records could be eclipsed, including that of 28 January 1772, when George Washington measured three feet of snow on the ground at his Mount Vernon estate.

Even if this is not the storm of the century already, it's close. Philadelphia's 31 inches between Sunday and Monday was the largest 24-hour snowfall in its history. New York's 22 inches was its third largest (100 million tons fell on the city, according to CNN). It was the third or fourth highest here in the capital. The 20-hour shutdown of Boston airport was the longest since 1978. Economic losses are climbing by billions of dollars. At least 100 have died as a result of the snow.

Washington is peculiarly ill-equipped for such an ordeal. Come the first soft flakes of winter, the city fathers handle snow with the same calm and competence that British Rail brings to its commuter services. An inch or two that would not raise an eyebrow in Moscow (or New England) throws the capital of the free world into delirium tremens. These days, with the District of Columbia in receivership and possessing only a third of the functioning snow-clearing equipment of four years ago, the performance has been even more dire than usual.

Four days on from the blizzard, the bus and underground still barely work. Schools are closed. Mountains of half-cleared snow and rivers of slush have turned Washington's streets into a cross-country course from the Winter Olympics.

The first sensation was utterly different. That Sunday morning, the snow was therapeutic, a humbling reassurance that there was an alternative to the frenetic pace of American life. No prospect was more beautiful than the dreaded Washington Beltway, normally a white-knuckle commuting racetrack, transformed into an empty sea of snow, road signs poking like fragments from the Titanic. Closer to home, not a squeal of brakes, not a single car horn was to be heard, just the occasional hiss of skiers, gliding past white mounds that had once been cars. The airports, too, those temples to our times, were shut. For all its technical wizardry, America was at a standstill.

But the charm of a blizzard wears off quickly. And patience wears thin with the TV weather forecasters and their glossy coiffures, spray-on smiles and professional shortcomings that no computer graphics can redeem. They completely missed, for instance, Tuesday's follow-up storm (sheepishly described afterwards as an "unanticipated high-level atmospheric disturbance") which dumped another four inches on DC.

By Thursday, the skis were off the streets and the car was king again, the only difference being that the pedestrian's normal refuge of the pavement was unreachable, still submerged by two feet of snow. Yet the crown fits uneasily. Driving your car is fine, but where to leave it? In Washington right now, the most prized asset of all is a viable parking space. Belatedly, snow ploughs have cleared a passable corridor along the middle of the streets in my neighbourhood. But parking is a do-it-yourself and highly labour-intensive proposition. "I dug it, and I park in it," read one sign guarding a space carved out of the surrounding tundra. Others stake out their territory with chairs and tables.

Even if you can shift the snow, where do you put it? In New York they've been dumping it into the Hudson River, but a Boston real-estate firm was less lucky when it ploughed clean snow into the harbour - only to be slapped with a $1,000 fine for environmental pollution.

Now it's falling again. Eight inches, they say, maybe snow, maybe sleet, maybe ice, probably all three. In Los Angeles, they're having a heatwave: the other day it was a record 87F on Venice Beach. But we snowsick on the other side of the country should not get too upset. Over there, there's probably an earthquake on the way.