Skip to main content

Don't treat snow as an emergency

By David Weinberger, Special to CNN
February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1047 GMT (1847 HKT)
People in the Northeast don't mind snow days enough to prepare for them better, David Weinberger says
People in the Northeast don't mind snow days enough to prepare for them better, David Weinberger says
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Weinberger: Blizzard not the worst, but why isn't New England better prepared?
  • He says an Oslo commenter to his blog notes Norway is more sensible about snow
  • Like Norway, New England could bury power lines, snow-proof infrastructure, he says
  • Writer: It's too costly, and in the end, people don't see storms as disasters -- just as snow days

Editor's note: David Weinberger is a senior researcher at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of "Too Big to Know" (Basic Books).

(CNN) -- It was not a blanket of snow that fell on the Northeast this past weekend. It was more like a futon of snow. A stack of futons. And not the light foam futons, but old-fashioned futons stuffed with horsehair or maybe potting soil. Sodden futons stacked 3 feet high with no place to shovel them.

But ignore my bitterness. I'm old and I just got in from shoveling the part of our driveway that the next civic-minded city plow is going to refill. In truth, New England handled this snow emergency like a champ -- so much better than the Blizzard of '78 in which people died stuck in their cars on the highway.

David Weinberger
David Weinberger

But before we break out the cocoa and self-congratulations, we might want to listen to Espen Andersen, a Norwegian in Oslo who lived in Boston for nine years. I blogged on Saturday about how well-prepared the Northeast was, and Espen jumped in with a "Yeah, but ..." comment. "I just can't get used to the New England oh-my-God-here-it-comes-again-flip-to-channel-5 attitude," he wrote.

He explained: "The fact that New England panics every time there is a flurry is due to lack of preparedness at the infrastructure level. In most of Norway, power and telephone lines are underground, it is illegal not to have snow tires on your car after December 1st or thereabouts (if you go in the ditch, you are fined) and during my own and my children's school days we have never had a snow day or any other interruption due to the weather (and we have plenty of weather). I have never been to the store to stock up on batteries and water. ... Our airport does not close down for snow, though there can be delays."

My pride makes me want to push back on the idea that we New Englanders "panic" in the face of blizzards, not to mention that referring to this past weekend's unpleasantness as "a flurry" goes beyond Nordic stoicism.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



On the other hand, I remember being amused as a grad student watching the recent immigrants from sunny Mediterranean climes spinning their tires in a modest Toronto snowfall. What goes around comes around, and those Mediterranean tires were going around at an unmoving 60 mph.

But Espen raises a valid question: "Why doesn't New England harden the grid and communications systems, put winter tires on school buses, mandate winter tires in snowy conditions and just get rid of this stupid idea of snow days? It is winter; it happens almost every year."

I'd suggest there are two reasons we don't.

We'd all like to see the poles and wires that blight our landscape come down. Not only would this reduce power outages due to downed trees, it might also give us an opportunity to pull some optical fiber into our homes and businesses so that the United States could stop falling behind the developed world in high-speed Internet access. So let's do it.

Girl gets super excited about snow
Digging out after the storm
Cars stuck in snow on Long Island
Teens help shovel snow, dig out schools

Except, it's expensive. All those trenches to dig. All those rights of way to clear. All those transformers to move indoors. The bullet to bite is so large that we're more willing to dribble out the price of sending out repair crews, and to put up with the far more substantial costs borne by individuals and businesses that go without power for hours, days and sometimes weeks.

The aggregated cost of being without electricity for the 655,000 people plunged into the cold and dark by the so-called Nemo storm, are distributed among the sufferers, and thus that cost is invisible, as is everything if one closes one's eyes hard enough.

Besides, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick estimated that it would cost $1 trillion to bury all the power lines throughout the commonwealth. Various experts I consulted (via the advanced knowledge network known as mailing lists) supplied counter guesstimates of $45 billion to $200 billion, but with caveats about everything from the frequency of buried rocks to the increased difficulty of fixing broken underground cables. Still, that's between three and 70 Big Digs, to use our local unit of currency. Not chump change, no matter how you measure it.

Which brings us to the second reason we don't bite the bullet and snow-proof our infrastructure: We think of snowstorms as emergencies that inevitably bring with them power outages and snow days, so we don't demand a snow-proof infrastructure. Yes, this is circular reasoning. We don't demand a fix because we don't see the system as broken. It takes a Norwegian to have us wonder why we're shutting down our cities as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Even if we overcame both reasons and buried our power and communication lines, I doubt that we would escape all snow-caused work stoppages. Maybe I'm just being a panicky New Englander, but when 2 to 3 feet of snow drops on your city so fast that you can practically hear the thump, I can't imagine how we'd get our streets and trolley tracks cleaned fast enough to avoid a day when it's better if everyone just stays at home, does some shoveling and watches "Buffy" seasons 1-4.

For, as Espen points out, if we didn't treat snow as an emergency, we wouldn't get our snow days. And we love our snow days.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Weinberger.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 2200 GMT (0600 HKT)
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1821 GMT (0221 HKT)
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT