Snow shutdown: What could possibly go wrong?

Friday - 11/4/2011, 2:00am EDT

The toughest decision any director of the Office of Personnel Management has to make is whether to shut down federal Washington during a snowstorm. That makes some people smile, because it sounds so silly. So petty. But it's a fact.

A "wrong" call can (often does) make Uncle Sam's chief people person look like an idiot. Or a weakling. Or a heartless beast. Someone who panicked. Or let his (or her) macho get in the way of common sense.

Telling people to come to work during a snowstorm then sending them home, can make for a dangerous, nightmare commute.

Sending people home early during a snow or ice storm plays havoc with bus and subway lines. Crews who work split shifts, both the a.m. and p.m.rush hours, must be brought in. Extra equipment must arrive where its needed from where it was. Car pools can be disrupted. Schools are reluctant to release young kids with working parents.

D.C. is a river town. Hence hilly. Hills and ice don't mix. If you want to see chaos, visit San Francisco or Seattle during an ice storm.

During the Clinton administration, a late storm-closing decision, by an out-of-town OPM director, caused her major heartburn and almost cost her her job.

In 1982, government workers were released early because of a major snow-ice storm. Thousands of them — who normally would have been at work — were on the 14th street bridge when Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into it. Most of the passengers died. So did four people on the bridge, along with four others who were seriously injured. Twenty eight minutes after the crash, three more people were killed and 25 injured when a Metro Orange line train — packed with early dismissal commuters — jumped the track. Shortly afterward an Orange line Metro train derailed.

In the finger-pointing that followed both disasters, OPM was blamed by some for letting people go too early. Or to late. Or at all. A string of OPM directors who followed said "never again." But that's ancient history.

OPM is again rethinking its policy, looking at a "shelter in place" system. Officially the Washington area has 300,000 plus feds. Unofficially there are a lot more that aren't usually counted because they are with intelligence agencies. Nor does that take into account contractors who, in some places, outnumber the feds they work with. When the feds go, they do too. The payroll for those faceless feds and numberless contractors is a lot more than the $77 million tab posted by Uncle Sam.

A huge portion of the D.C. metro area is populated by transplants from New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and other places where, we are constantly reminded, they know how to handle snow. I have had coworkers talk about walking 11 miles to school, on bloody stumps and surviving on roots and frozen squirrels under conditions that would shrivel us warm-blooded D.C. weenies.

Bottom line. It's a tough call with maybe no 100 percent "right" solution. Whatever happens, there is always the chance that sometime this winter something will go wrong, go wrong, go wrong...

So the on-going debate over a new "shelter in place."


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

By Jack Moore

Elvis Aron Presley was born Jan. 8 1935 along with a stillborn twin Jesse Garon. It's reputed that being a "twin-less twin," contributed to Elvis' personal struggles. "Twins have a bond inside the womb that is irreplaceable when one twin dies, thus adding difficulty to the childhood of the surviving twin," the DiscoveringElvis blog reads. "This is likely to have contributed to a number or Elvis's personality traits, strengths, weaknesses etc."


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