DC pushes the snow panic button

Technology can't allay city's entrenched need to freak out at prospect of snow

As a native of Washington, D.C., I've come to feel a peculiar sense of civic pride in the way my hometown panics in the snow. My friends from the snowy Midwest are always shocked when they see how we shut everything down -- including the city's main employer, the federal government -- over a foot of snow or less.

But our snow panic has a rich, storied history. Check out this account of President John F. Kennedy's inauguration snowstorm by Arthur Schlesinger in his book "A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House":

"Washingtonians do not know how to drive in the snow: they slide and skid and spin their wheels and panic. By six o'clock traffic had stopped all over town. People abandoned their cars in snow drifts and marched grimly into the gale, heads down, newspapers wrapped around necks and stuffed under coats."

Our snow panic goes back generations. It's who we are as a city. Other cities have champion baseball teams or interesting local cuisine; we have our snow panic. The freakishly warm winters of the past decade or so did nothing to allay it, either. It just lay dormant, winter after mild winter, now rising this winter again like a snowy white, freaked-out phoenix.

You might think that advances in technology and the move toward telework would keep us from panicking so much. Why should we panic when we don't have to drive to work? But I would venture to say that our teleconferencing, teleworking and BlackBerrys have only increased our snow panic. This "technology can conquer all" idea seems to have fed, not abated, our panic level. Let me explain.

Back in the not-too-distant past, people used to work in places called "offices." They would drive to the office, or sometimes take a subway or bus. You would go into a special room with a long table to have meetings, and you would look at real people, not YouTube videos or avatars. Sometimes these people were annoying and drove you crazy, but at other times they were friendly and told funny stories. Sometimes you would go to the food court with them for lunch. You would compliment them on their outfits or shoes. If your office had achieved some special accomplishment, the boss would order in pizza for everyone.

But teleconferencing and telework have changed all that. Now your co-workers are disembodied voices calling into the meeting while their cell phone breaks up. You might see your boss once a week. Telework has helped a great many of us, but we've also lost something. I think the demise of office camaraderie has contributed to our sense of digital alienation, and dare I say it, snow panic. When the meteorologist calls for two feet of snow, all you can do is tweet about it. Eventually "snow panic" becomes a trending topic and before long, Twitter posts the giant "fail whale" of too many tweets.

I think part of the appeal of TV shows like "Mad Men" and "The Office" is that people are nostalgic for the drama and comedy that only happen when you work side by side with real people. That so many people are now unemployed probably adds to this sense of nostalgia for the workplace of the past. Perhaps someone will come up with a new work paradigm, one that incorporates the benefits of telework with the human connection of a traditional office. Until then, I'll be here hunkered down in D.C., ready to panic at the first flake.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Thu, Feb 11, 2010 Kathleen

As a DC native I welcome the panic. I love snow days! Plus, what would we have to talk about otherwise? Panic makes the winter weather so much more exciting.

Thu, Feb 11, 2010 Graham Rockville

To call this a "panic" is a little unfair. After yesterday's dumping we've gotten in the neighborhood of three to four feet over the past few days. The DC-metro area isn't equipped to deal with this and nor should they be. At a time when it's said the Federal Government wastes taxpayers' money it would be hard to justify spending additional resources on something that occurs so infrequently in this area. Let us panic....then let's move on.

Thu, Feb 11, 2010 Michigan

On the snow panic topic - I agree with Don that it's an equipment issue that causes the panic and it's an expectation issue that allows for equipment to be purchased as it is here in Michigan. On the telework topic - I agree wholeheartedly with Kate but "doing the math" is easier than getting authorization to telework. As a contractor we're told we must "be in the office" except for "emergency remote support" situations even though government workers around us can telework. I'd welcome a policy change to allow those of us whose physical presence makes no difference to the work we do to telework a majority of the time.

Wed, Feb 10, 2010 Peter G. Tuttle, CPCM

Telework capability has been great over the last two weeks, otherwise I'd have been forced to take unplanned vacation. I can actually concentrate better on writing and researching while out of the office. I am not yet nostalgic for office "drama" - give me a few more years. Cheers.

Wed, Feb 10, 2010 Don Chautauqua NY

My brother lives in the Reston VA area. We grew up outside of Buffalo, NY so we know how to handle snow. I think the panic comes from several places. 1.) The DC and surrounding areas do not have the equipment to handle large amounts of snow. 2.) The leaders in these areas may be too Proud to ask other northern states for help (or too cheap). 3.) The majority of the pouplation does not know how to travel in that type of weather......Just an outsiders viewpoint.

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