Why We Cower

Tuesday - 3/3/2009, 4:00am EST

(Note to readers: As I write this it is early Sunday morning, March 1, this may well be my last column. To insure its survival and publication I am sending it by e-mail to editor Suzanne Kubota today although it will not appear, if it appears at all, until Tuesday March 3rd. Since you're reading this, I'll assume she made it to DC from her home in Pennsylvania. If not, I hope we meet again in that great newsroom on the other side. I also hope some of you are left to read this.)

Here's the problem:

Washington, as I write this, is under a winter storm warning. Or watch. I forget which one is the worst, but that's the one we're under.

It will be in effect, they tell us, from 2 p.m. today, Sunday until 2 p.m. Monday. It could bring, one weeping radio newsman reported, anywhere from 5 to 11 inches of snow.

Oh, the humanity!

How much of Washington will survive is unknown at this time.

Before coming in the office, I updated my will, wrapping a notarized copy of it in a water-proof container. I will leave it outside the doorway of a secret, backup federal facility in Reston, Va.

I also, like others in the Washington area, rushed to the supermarket to stock up on white bread, milk and toilet paper. I don't know exactly why we do this every time there is snow threat, but I got six of each. Anything more would, in my opinion, be overkill. Again, I don't know why those items constitute a DC emergency kit, but they do. It is what we do. And I don't want to be caught flat-footed, as it were, if the worst happens. Which it probably will.

After our last snow-storm a few weeks back, President Barack Obama (a Chicago-resident via Honolulu) chided us for shutting down schools because of the threat of an inch or two of snow. He got a good laugh at the expense of folks in the D.C. area. But he missed part of the story. Some suburban school systems did shut down. Others had delayed arrivals. D.C. public schools did NOT shut down. They had a late arrival policy.

The private school that the President's children attend DID shut down. The fact that he works from home, and doesn't have to commute in bad weather wasn't lost on people here.

The metro Washington area, we are told by rugged transplants from Chicago, Boston and New York, is Wimp City when it comes to winter weather. Folks in other places, we are told, know how to drive. Except when you see those massive pileups in Illinois, New York and Massachusetts on the evening news. Maybe they are caused by people from DC who were just driving through. Whatever.

I do know that a dozen years ago, a husky fellow asked and friend and me for help getting him out of a parking space in Georgetown. His car (a humble Chevy I think) had Massachusetts tags. The three of us pushed, slushed and slid, and finally got his car out. He said "Thanks a lot!" We said "No problem, Senator (Ted) Kennedy!" Later that winter I helped push him out again. Of course that wouldn't have happened in Boston, but DC is whacky, right?

Winter here does strange things. It puts a real strain on the Director of the Office of Personnel Management. Most of them came to DC from other places. Real places. Where they know how to handle snow. He or she has to make the snow-shutdown call which is nearly always criticized no matter which way it goes.

Although they may come from places where we-know-how-to-drive-in-winter, once here they fall into the same trap that grips the rest of us locals. Several OPM Directors have told me that the toughest call they ever had to make was to decide whether (and if so when) to close government offices here. It is a big deal because so many of the area's 350,000 (that we know of) feds commute. Some from Virginia to Maryland. Some from Maryland to Virginia. Some from D.C. to one of those two states. Many Maryland and Virginia residents work in downtown D.C.

Washington is a river town. As such it is very hilly as you notice if you bike or jog. Every street is either going downhill toward the Potomac or uphill away from it. Several of our suburban counties - Montgomery and Prince Georges in Maryland and Fairfax in Virginia - are very rural in many parts. As in deer and coyote country, believe it or not. Hills and rural roads, during an ice strom, can be problematic.