Snow rules for Washington D.C.

It’s snowing outside at my home here in Northern Virginia. It’s hard to measure the current amount of snow given the drifts, but I am guessing it is about a foot of snow and more is still falling. This makes it a major snow event for our area. This will likely the biggest such event since Snowpocalypse and Snowmageddon back in late 2009 and early 2010. With our power lines underground, we’re good.

Thanks to the polar vortex, snow has not been unknown this season, although it had not arrived in substantial quantities until last night. Mostly what we’ve known are well below freezing temperatures instead. I used to wear my parka a couple of times a year. For weeks I’ve worn nothing outside but my parka, and an insulated hat, and my warmest and thickest gloves and sometimes a scarf as well. In short, it’s been a real winter, of the sort I remember from my childhood in upstate New York. It shows no sign of leaving anytime soon. The polar vortex is quite happy where it is, thank you very much.

If these events and cold weather go on long enough, it may actually change the snow culture of the Washington area. It hasn’t happened yet. There are rules and a protocol for dealing with snow that are generally unique to our area. If you are thinking of relocating to the Washington D.C. area, here is what to expect:

  • If there is a rumor of snow in the forecast, even if it is a week away, it will be Topic A around the office water cooler. It will send the local meteorologist wannabee in your office to find the most crazy and outlandish forecast, which will spread like wildfire. A chance of snow next Friday will morph into a killer supercell snowstorm because of some odd European forecast model, which professional meteorologists scorn. Guess which forecast your office-mates will believe?
  • Because of the above (or sometimes just the rumor that there might be snow in the next month) you are required to immediately rush to the store to buy milk and toilet paper. Everyone will get the same bright idea at once, which will mean that parking lots will be jammed, store shelves will empty and toilet paper and milk won’t be able to be found which will also be true of the snow. A true Washingtonian knows that even if you have a couple of months supply of toilet paper, and an extra refrigerator stashed with gallons of milk, you are still required to go buy more milk and toilet paper. It’s the rule! You can never possibly have enough, because it could be weeks before a snowplow gets to your street.
  • The federal government is required to dither about whether it will close its offices or not, leaving great uncertainty and confusion because most local governments, institutions and businesses will follow whatever the government does. The poor director of the Office of Personnel Management will get squeezed from both sides trying to call it. Taxpayers don’t like federal employees getting a paid day off and federal employees don’t like getting stuck in snowdrifts going to and from the office or for that matter, working. So the OPM chief is bound to make someone unhappy and upset. Congress will conveniently gavel their sessions to an early close so they can get out of town, while conducting hurried interviews on their way to the airport about the outrage of giving federal workers another day off with pay. In any event, there is a 50% chance the OPM director will call it wrong and a 100% chance that someone will be mortally offended and call for his removal.
  • Some Republican congressman will say that the snowstorm is proof positive that global warming is not happening. Actually, a half dozen or more of them will, but only one will make the papers.
  • The plowing rules are straightforward: when you don’t particularly need your street to be plowed it will be plowed. When you really need it, it won’t be. Our last three-incher brought the plow down our street twice during the night. Getting out of my driveway in the morning was not a problem and my street was nicely sanded with mostly bare pavement. This snowstorm likely means a couple of days before a plow arrives. They are too busy plowing the main roads that no one can get to than to bother with places where actual people live. In general, particularly in Virginia, the snow removal budget will always be underfunded assuming the most optimistic forecast for the winter and there will be great consternation when lots of snow arrives and there isn’t the money to remove the snow quickly. It’s the price of limited government and keeping taxes low.
  • Your local school district works just the opposite of the director of OPM. They want schools to close and actively look for reasons to shut the school down. No one complains except those whiny parents who probably have to work and can’t get childcare. No one in the school system gives a crap about them. A rumor of snow or ice a week away is sufficient to close schools. A temperature in the single digits, and sometimes in the teens, is a reason to close schools. Principles, teachers and students all expect lots of bogus snow days. When the year draws to an end and enough instruction days were not delivered, someone will waive the requirement to extend the school year because, duh, parents have vacation plans already!
  • Here is what you do if you see a snowflake: panic. It’s required. You are driving down a clear street and one stray flake falls from the sky. You must immediately scream and cause an accident. This is because even if you have lived in the area thirty years, you are not allowed to retain the memory of how to drive safely in snow. Even if you did somehow remember, your fellow commuters won’t, because most are newbies and previously lived in tropical environments. In any event it only takes one person who has never driven in snow before to thoroughly shut down a major artery, and it’s guaranteed that you will have plenty of those, so traffic will quickly gridlock. It will be hard to say if it is due to snow, since this is the way traffic is most of the time anyhow, but it is guaranteed if there is just a single snowflake.
  • You will eventually end up with spouse and kids all home together, and you are required to drive each other nuts. This is because it’s not normal to be all at home together at the same time.  You keep your sanity by being physically removed from each other most of the time by being at work, school, or at friends. Suddenly you are together 24/7 and you quickly will discover that while you love your family, you don’t like them. In fact, you secretly hate them, including your spouse. The longer you are housebound the worse it will get.
  • The rule on shoveling sidewalks is: every other walk is shoveled. Some will dutifully shovel in the midst of a snowstorm; some never will, including their driveway. If pressed people will create all sorts of reasons for not shoveling, including school kids will get better traction in the snow instead of on a cleared sidewalk. The lazy ones simply wait for nature to “shovel” the snow for them. Some will hope a kind neighbor to do it for them. The really clever ones keep a broken shovel as a ready excuse and, gosh darn, all the stores are closed so there is no way to get a new one.

That will do it for a starter. I am hoping to retire this year or next and we are likely to move further north. So I expect to see more snow but I also expect the streets will be plowed regularly. It will take some time to forget the Washington snow culture, but it will have me chuckling during each snowfall in retirement. Washington is a city full of eggheads who become vacuous blondes the moment a snowflake arrives. If it weren’t so frustrating, it would be very humorous.

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