Amanda Ripley


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Let it Snow (Just Not During Rush Hour): Snow Proves Our Unpreparedness for the Unthinkable

31st Jan 2011 posted in Disaster Behavior

Although I’ve worked for Amanda, and with The Unthinkable for over two years, I was completely unprepared for the unthinkable when it hit Washington, DC, last week.

My commute, door-to-door is 8.8 miles. In normal circumstances the drive might take 30 minutes. At the absolute worst: 45 minutes. Last Wednesday, it took me 6 hours.

I grew up just north of Boston and am no stranger to winter weather and snow driving. Yet no one could have convinced me that a mere 4 or 5 inches of snow and sleet would have caused the kind of chaos I witnessed Wednesday.

The official explanation looks like this: A snowstorm hitting exactly at 4 p.m., coupled with icy roads, inexperienced snow drivers and the already awful DC traffic combined to create what The Washington Post called “one of the most harrowing events [local emergency managers] can recall since since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon.”

But the big picture is more ominous. Wednesday’s commute proved that the DC region (along with Los Angeles and many other congested cities) cannot be evacuated in a reasonable amount of time.

Local officials need to do a better job of managing evacuations and working together across turf lines. They must also begin educating the public about the need to shelter in place rather than leaving. They should do this now—while the trauma is fresh in people’s minds.

Regular people, meanwhile, need to be more self-sufficient. As it was, many drivers ran out of gas or were stuck in their cars overnight, arriving home from work just when they would normally be leaving the next morning. To give you an idea, check out this horrifying map of Wednesday’s DC traffic conditions.

Otherwise, expect to share the sense of helplessness and rage I felt the other day. Here’s a quick synopsis of my mental deterioration during my 6-hour ordeal: Drive slowly and you’ll be fine—> Why are we at a dead stop?—> Why can’t anyone drive in the snow?—> Why is that fancy car getting stuck, and why, for the love of snow, is that driver gunning it?—> Why are people abandoning their cars in the MIDDLE of the road?—> I’m starving.—> I have no food.—> I will be stuck in my car overnight.—> I have to use the bathroom.—-> I am so thirsty.—> I HATE THIS, AND I HATE EVERYONE.

And on and on. My anger soon became depression and then acceptance (see one driver’s stages of traffic grief here).

Towards the end of my journey, when I had crossed from DC into VA , my panic subsided just a bit. When I finally reached my icy driveway, the relief was overwhelming. And then I swore I’d never get in my car again.

Of course that’s not an option. I have to get in my car again, even if the forecast calls for a wintry mix this week. We all have lives to lead, jobs to work, kids to drive, dry cleaning to pick-up. Even as I write this, my heart is starting to race with the thought of another six hours in the car. It can happen again, and at some point, snow won’t be the cause.

Fortunately there are a few things we can do right now (a CDC checklist is here). Stock your car with bottles of water, non-perishable snacks, blankets, and flashlights with working batteries. A cell phone car charger is always a good investment (in my case, the dwindling battery symbol became a powerful metaphor for my resilience). Keep your gas tank at a healthy level all the time—and always fill it up before snow arrives.

If anything, the above precautions will help ease your panic when faced with an unprecedented traffic event. (I’m talking to you, guy who got out of his car to curse and make lewd gestures at a stuck car.)

As for the officials (I’m talking to you, Ed McDonough, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, who told The Washington Post: “We have to put our minds together and see if we might able to come up with some reasonable ways to deal with this ... But quite frankly, what can we do but pray the snow doesn’t hit at rush hour?”): Wednesday’s commute can’t be blamed solely on the timing of the snow. The DC traffic situation is beyond capacity on normal, perfectly sunny days. Just one accident is enough to cripple every major route out of the District (some of which are, ironically, evacuation routes).

Prayer is not a plan.