Of Snowstorms and Subways

Many of the Loyal Seven will have picked up on this already, but I live in New York City. I’ve been here for about fifteen and a half years. Before that, I had spent my entire life living in Northeast Ohio. That’s two different places, both with bitchy winters.

Winter temperatures in the Midwest drop far lower than they do here on the East Coast, but I can’t recall ever having had to walk fifteen minutes to a subway station only to wait further on an icy cold platform while I was living in Akron. The winters here are milder, but they are something the people experience more.

Which brings me to last night!

Beginning on Sunday, mayors and governors all over the coast, in reaction to weather reports, began issuing dire warnings that an apocalyptic weather event was soon to descend on the area. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City said the approaching storm “could literally be one of the top two or three largest storms in the history of this city and we need to plan accordingly.” Those plans, taken in conjunction with those from the office of the governor, Andrew Cuomo, amounted to shutting down The City That Never Sleeps. Starting Monday night, cars and trucks were banned from the roads. All buses and trains shut down. The city, and all its residents, were forced to hunker down and wait out the storm.

And yet, even when the forecasts were at their most dire, this seemed like an overreaction.

Sunday night I watched the late news on the local ABC affiliate, and meteorologists Lee Goldberg and Jeff Smith had revised snowfall totals for the city down to between 12 and 24 inches. Sure, that’s a lot for a 24-hour period, but every couple years or so this city gets socked by a blizzard of equal or greater proportion. This is nothing new. Yet it was the next day, after these revised models were available, that the orders to close the city were issued.

By Monday evening, with the travel restrictions still hours away, it was becoming clear that the blizzard, which hammered much of the area to the north and east of the city, was not going to live up to the prognostications of the entertainment/news business. Instead of rescinding the order to shut down all transit, the closure of roads and tracks proceeded.

When I awoke this Tuesday morning and looked out my window, instead of seeing an Arctic hellscape, my eyes beheld about 11 inches of snow on the ground. Not a dusting, but hardly anything worth spreading all that unease over. Folks in the moneyed confines of Manhattan had it easier, where the overnight snowfalls failed to top seven inches. For this, we hunkered down like a meteor was on its way.

One of the peculiarities of New York politics is that snowstorms, and the government’s reaction to them, can have effects at the polls. Past mayors, most notably John Lindsay, have been pilloried for what some believe to have been inadequate responses to snowstorms. Basically, if the road in front of a person’s house isn’t plowed in a timely manner, the buck stops at Gracie Mansion. Snow-covered streets are a touchy subject in the city.

As far as the governor’s office is concerned, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which controls subways, buses, and two of the four passenger rail services in the city, falls under their aegis. The last big storm that buried the city resulted in a pair of subway trains, while travelling on aboveground tracks, becoming stranded for hours. All the passengers on those trains were given financial settlements for their hardship, costing the Authority millions of dollars, and the governor prestige.

But in shutting down public transit in the city, the economy of the area is taking a hit measured in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in lost productivity and wages. Considering the subways, the lifeblood of this city, operate mostly underground, away from the snow, the decision to close them looked very poor, even before we had the benefit of hindsight.

The cynic in me looks at the shutdowns, at the overreactions, and does not see a mayor and a governor weighing the risks in a reasonable fashion. It’s easy to say that erring on the side of safety is always the best policy, but that is not true at all. If it were, we would be paralyzed as a society, unwilling to take on any risk because of the inevitability of some undesired outcomes. The only reason the city was shut down, for what turned out to be nothing more than an annoying snowstorm, was because its mayor and its governor needed political cover. If the storm had been a real howling motherfucker, and they had not taken the measures they did, then the news would be filled with accusations and slander. No politician wants to deal with that nonsense, so we become witness to New York City as ghost town.

But, lest we blame the politicians wholeheartedly, let’s not forget to place blame on television news outlets that ratchet up rhetoric in order to improve their ratings, and a culture that just adores the worst-case scenario. We devour apocalyptica in our popular entertainment and in our religions. We wanted this storm to sock New York City in a big way. We wanted to see pictures of the Statue of Liberty up to her eyeballs in snowdrifts, and we wanted to hang our leaders for every instance of incompetence in dealing with the situation. It is our own shallowness that is reflected in our craven leadership, and I hope that my fellow New Yorkers keep that in mind before the next storm.

As for me, when I’m promised three feet of snow, I want to see three feet of snow. I want to strap on a couple cameras and set out to capture something unique. I want to hear the muffled gloriousness of an enshrouded metropolis. I want to be able to tell stories about surviving epic blizzards for the rest of my days. I want the experiences of those younger than me to never compare to my sublime hardships, and that was taken away from me this time. That’s where my shallowness lies. Maybe it’s the writer in me. Maybe I’m just an idiot. Still, better an idiot than the Mayor or Governor of New York in the middle of a snowstorm.