Why Was the Snow Response So Slow?

Five inches of snow shut down city

By P.J. Orvetti
|  Friday, Jan 28, 2011  |  Updated 8:04 AM EDT
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It was the first crisis of Vincent Gray’s term as mayor -- and Gray failed spectacularly.

Last winter was an anomaly. The District was hit by several massive snowstorms in a row, a rarity that defied preparation. Snowmageddon was beyond what I’d seen in most of my 23 winters as a New Englander. It was a bizarre catastrophe, and the District government’s gobsmacked response was understandable.

But what happened this week was not unusual. In fact, it was a remedial snowstorm. The District had two near-misses earlier this winter to get ready. Gray rushed into action in advance of these storms-that-weren’t, mindful of the criticism Adrian Fenty took last year, and that New York’s Michael Bloomberg took earlier this winter.

So when a storm finally did arrive, with several days notice, District residents could be forgiven for expecting that Gray would meet the task. After all, in much of the region, there was no more than five inches of snow.

Five inches. And yet the District was brought to its knees.

Commuters were stuck for 12 hours or more. Plows were absent from major D.C. thoroughfares, as were emergency responders. Police were not sent to the sites of heavy congestion. Seventy Metrobuses got stuck, and service shut down. Thousands of area residents -- including Gray -- lost power, and many still don’t have it back.

The city recovered fairly quickly. By Thursday morning, every major city street, and many minor ones, were completely cleared. This shows that the District had the capacity to act, and to do a thorough job. But it happened too slowly.

The issue is more than a weather nuisance. You can’t go more than a block or two (shoveled or not) in D.C. without getting some reminder of the risk of terrorism in the nation’s capital -- whether it’s a bag search on Metro, a body scan at Dulles, a security barrier on a street you used to be able to drive down, or a metal detector where there wasn’t one before.

But how will our local governments respond if and when a devastating terrorist attack does happen? Will the emergency response be swift -- or will scared civilians again be stuck waiting for 12 hours, this time during a more serious danger?

Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC

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