I still struggle with the incomprehensibility of it all: A half-inch of snow, give or take, brought us, collectively, to the frayed edges of civilization. I mean ... even us detached folks, those who fancy ourselves to be occasionally keen observers of the human condition, chroniclers of psycho-social phenomena--we were flipping and just as caught up as the next harried sojourner. I'm telling you straight up. Two or three more hours in the car with the world around me looking like an iced-out version of Mad Max and I'd have looted the mall for some shoulder pads and makeshift weapons.
This was all very unlike the aftermath of Hurricane Fran, or the big ice storm a couple of years ago, in which adversity engendered our collective kumbayaa. Some of the most mild-mannered people I know, after seven hours on Six Forks, were absolutely seething and ready to shoot Greg Fishel a "fair one." (Ebonics teachable moment #378: A "fair one" is a good, old-fashioned fistfight. Can't have folks thinking I cavort with wanna-be weatherman snipers.)
So how'd we go, over the span of a midday hour, from "flurries" to The Day the Earth Stood Still? That's what everybody wants to know. Perhaps, as with other modern tragedies, we'll have to wait for the movie adaptation to know the "real story." I've half a mind to write the whole thing up in the style of the TV show 24, in a morbid attempt to create the most boring disaster epic ever. Courtesy of Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, we even have a working title: Nightmare in the Triangle.
Unfortunately, there's not much action in the script, apart from the harrowing left turn I made on an icy incline, where I slalomed my spinning tires and downshifted (I do all my own stunts) prior to rocketing down Davis Drive at 14 miles per hour. I'm no screenwriting vet, but I'm fairly confident that pacing would suffer from several continuous hours of shots of people in unmoving cars.
The first four hours on the road flew by for me, my self-distraction aided by a cell phone that allowed me to simultaneously play solitaire, make long distance calls to family and touch base with my wife during her odyssey of picking up the kids. This kept me a tad more calm than my fellow motorists, whose steering-wheel headbanging led me to believe that they were calculating national debt-like late fees accruing at various day care and aftercare facilities. Amazingly, for a transplanted Yankee, I didn't spend much time being pissed at folks for not being able to drive in the snow. That, like the custom of leaving all grocery stores bereft of milk, bread, toilet paper and beer at the mere threat of winter weather, is very familiar to me after 11 years of residence. Instead, I was angry with local officials, who seemingly regard snow and ice as a surprise every time we get them, despite the fact that it's snowed just about every winter since I've been here.
Above all, it was embarrassing. Especially the collective raised eyebrow from the national media. While reading AP and CNN accounts of our paralysis, one could almost hear the snickers. On NFL.com I ran across an analyst giving his two cents on how the weather might affect the conference championships, and he wrote the following:
"It is a good thing the game is not in Raleigh, N.C. I read today that a mere inch of snow was all it took to incapacitate the city yesterday. Supposedly 3,000 students were stranded in classrooms overnight? That's a kid's worst nightmare. The mayor actually blamed the weathermen for not predicting that one inch of snow."
Ouch. In the aftermath of the--I can't bring myself to label a half-inch of snow as a storm like the weathertainers--malicious faerie dusting of winter precipitation, the official apologia ring hollow to me. Sure, the mayor has solemnly vowed to ensure that this never happens again, and meteorologists have waxed contrite on the airwaves, but there seems to be this general idea that this was unavoidable. No, it wasn't. I was prepared to talk to snow removal experts in several northern states, and even found very detailed plans from the Wisconsin DOT on the Web. But there were no deep, snowy secrets to be gleaned. We had snow and freezing rain on Thursday with no grand metropolitan paralysis. Why? They went out and prepared the roads ahead of time, like they do in cities and states where snow is an expected and managed winter occurrence.
The cause of this decidedly unfunny comedy of errors can be reduced to a lack of the following: proactivity, communication, coordination. After initial bumbling, the schools made a gutsy and correct call in halting bus service and allowing the children to spend the night (for all the inconvenience incurred, we'd have nonetheless been calling for people's heads had there been a single fatal or critical school bus accident). Still, there is no excuse for WRAL to have posted that Wake County Schools were closed a half hour before the principal of an area middle school was aware of this fact (he only found out, by the way, because his secretary happened to be watching WRAL). I didn't get the e-mail notification I'd signed up for from the schools until after 10 p.m. that night, far too late to serve the intended purpose.
There needs to be a regional task force comprised of schools, transportation departments and employers. For instance, had school officials called the city and county departments of transportation to inform them of their intent to announce early school closings, the city and county could have replied, "Um, you know what? We haven't really gotten around to, er, de-icing the roads ... can you delay your announcement by 30 minutes and let us jump on it real quick?" Salt and sand and our existing plans would have prevented major thoroughfares and intersections from being damn near impassable, and we'd have all been home by nightfall.
Mayor, Governor, if you're listening ... we do need a mass mailing to everyone with an N.C. driver's license to dispense some common sense tips on driving in ice and snow. (Yes, the best thing is not to be on the roads in the first place, but when you have to go get your kids, or get home, there's no alternative.) Impassioned plea from a college disc jock at WKNC notwithstanding (his 10-minute rant against the "stupid, stupid people" had me cracking up), we could use some more driver's ed. If I had a dollar for every simpleminded SUV driver I saw zooming around completely ignorant of the concepts of stopping distance, inertia, etc., I could double our fleet of salt trucks. Arrgh.
In the big picture, though, so what if it took my wife eight hours to get from our boys' school near downtown to our home in North Raleigh (I truly feel for her--the kids were reminding her toward the end that in the same amount of time they could have driven to New Jersey, Ohio or Florida)?
What's more sobering is a thought that occurred to me after I'd avoided gridlock on I-40 only to find myself parked on U.S. 70. "If this were a tsunami, we'd all be dead" (granted, tsunamis don't come this far inland, but hey, who ever heard of a half-inch of snow paralyzing a purported major metropolitan area, either?). Seriously, in the event of a real emergency, a true civic disaster, it seems highly unlikely that our sprawled communities could be safely evacuated. As I eyed the endless columns of cars, searching my mind in vain for a viable alternate route, I realized that in a real emergency it would be all prayers and grim resignation because there's no way anyone would get to where they needed to be in time.
I wonder how many people we have who scientifically study traffic patterns and input that into disaster preparedness scenarios? Probably nowhere near enough, especially given the paucity of post-9/11 homeland security allocations to the states and municipalities. As one who gets paid to analyze and resolve issues with large computers, I'm very aware that it's usually not as important to put plans in place to resolve the problem you just had, but to abstract those issues, step back, and implement solutions that will prevent the far more serious problems that you could have had. In some cases, it's actually a good thing that you encountered a problem because it illuminates a weakness or exposure to a much more dire scenario that you get to solve and prevent without the need for catastrophic experience. I hope Mayor Meeker's task force will be cognizant of that. Whether the next threat comes from natural disaster, aliens, terrorists or whatever, let it be known that we are not ready.