Skip to main content

Don't treat snow as an emergency

By David Weinberger, Special to CNN
updated 5:47 AM EST, Wed February 13, 2013
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
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT