Beware the Snow: Lessons From Snowy Disasters

Public officials, and mayors especially, can learn what not to do during a snowstorm by examining the past.

by / November 11, 2010
Photo by David Kidd. David Kidd

You may recall that Caesar was warned that he should “beware the Ides of March.” We all know what happened to Caesar. While hopefully elected officials do not have to be concerned with a Brutus in their lives, one warning that should be heeded is to “beware the snow.”

This warning is particularly relevant to the mayors who have a responsibility to clear the streets of their cities of snow, no matter how much of it may have fallen. One only needs to recall the electoral fate of Michael Bilandic, then Chicago mayor, in January 1979 when two feet of snow fell on that city freezing traffic and keeping people homebound for days. Bilandic was blamed for the city's inaction and lost in the next election primary.

Snow can be an inconvenience to many people and their ability to conduct business, and for the average person their ability to get to work safely and in a timely manner. The typical snowstorm plays out something like this:

·    It starts snowing, depending on the timing it may lead to the mother of all traffic snarls as people try to get home. Once home, everyone hunkers down and enjoys watching the snow pile up outside their door. Children pray that school will be canceled and even the grown ups, unless they had travel plans, secretly relish in a day off spent with the family. That first day everyone enjoys staying at home, huddled in front of the fire after making snowmen, going out for some sledding or even cross country skiing in the neighborhoods.

·    It’s day two when things can start to unravel for government officials. The snowplows have been working furiously to plow the major arterials to keep rapid transit moving and lifelines cleared. People begin to get cabin fever, and the bliss of being with their kids for 24 hours is wearing thin. Work becomes downright tantalizing and the vacation time they begin to eat up — they can’t get to work because their street isn’t plowed — becomes a major irritation.

·    By day three, angry phone calls are being made to council members and city hall. In response to this onslaught of negativity, a news conference is announced and media respond to get the official word on what government is doing to clear the snow and restore a sense of normalcy to the city. This then is the danger point of an elected official’s career. You want to stand up and tell everyone what the city has done and is doing to clear the snow — many tons of sand and salt have been spread and how hard city employees are working to clear the streets.

Remember this difference between a snowstorm and a rainstorm, flooding or even a tornado: Snow falls everywhere. Every square inch of a city may be covered in snow. Unless you are in Buffalo, N.Y., you probably don’t have the equipment to get to clear every residential street in a timely manner. If you live in a temperate climate that doesn’t get snow very often, there’s a good chance that most residential streets will never be plowed. Your key message at that news conference is not what is being done, but how bad the situation is. Drive around in the neighborhoods so that you have a personal story to tell. Know the situation before you speak, and don’t promise what you and your road crews can’t deliver. Acknowledge people’s anger and show concern.

Yes, share what is being done, be visible, activate the emergency operations center and declare an emergency. Show that you know what the situation is and people will acknowledge the difficult situation that they and the city are in. Whatever you do, do not talk about how great a job the city is doing at responding to the disaster. If asked to give the city’s response a grade, decline to do so. This was a mistake that Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels made in giving the city’s response a B. He did not make it out of the primary election the next time he ran for mayor.

One last piece of advice: If you are laying on some sunny beach when the storm hits your fair city, get home as fast as you can. You can work on your tan another time. People expect you to be present and show leadership when bad things happen in your jurisdiction.

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

Platforms & Programs