OPM: Thundersnow, human nature created traffic mess

Thursday - 1/27/2011, 10:50am EST

John Berry, Director, OPM, speaks with The Federal Drive's Amy Morris.

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Berry's conference call with reporters.

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By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

OPM's decision to close the federal government early on Wednesday afternoon is being blamed, rightly or wrongly, for some of the massive gridlock around the D.C. area.

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, told Federal News Radio, first of all, the storm itself was a nightmare. "It was horrible. I know it," said Berry. "I heard from all of my friends and loved ones as well, as you can imagine."

Berry said the National Weather Service "nailed" the forecast that the storm would hit between 3 and 4 o'clock and that it was going to be an ugly rush hour. Berry told the Federal Drive's Amy Morris he expected the snow to fall fast and heavy, but... "I've lived here my whole life, Amy, as you know, and I think it's the fastest I've ever seen a storm accumulate."

Berry said OPM set up a call with the Council of Governments at about 10 o'clock Wednesday morning and the decision to go with a two-hour early dismissal was made by 11 a.m.

He said there are two points of dismissal decision making. "First is the safety of our federal workforce. Second is maintaining operations of the federal government to the greatest extent possible."

After announcing the decision, said Berry, it was time to sweat a little.

"Most federal employees come in between the hours of 7 and 9 and, so figuring, the two hours would give us the most feds out of the Washington, D.C. area while it was still light and ahead of the storm," Berry said. "And I have to tell you, all day long I was holding my breath because when you make a decision like that and there's not snow on the ground and no flakes falling, you run the risk of somebody saying, 'Boy, are you over-reacting!'"

Berry said when he went to Capitol Hill for a meeting at about 3 p.m., roads were dry and there was no traffic. "And when I came out, you know, after the meeting with the congressman, all heck was breaking loose."

Compounding the Problem

While federal employees had a two-hour dismissal window, not everyone took advantage of it. Not even Berry's own secretary.

"When I left for Capitol Hill," said Berry, "I said, 'Now please, make sure you go home right away. Don't risk this, it could be ugly,' and she said, 'Okay, okay, okay.' And after I left, instead of getting in her car and going home, if she had done that, she would have been home with no problem. Instead, she stayed working because like many people, she looked out her window and it wasn't snowing, and so she thought 'Well, I don't have to worry. Once it starts, I'll have time,' and they hung back."

As a result, said Berry, a fast moving storm and slow moving employees combined to make a bad situation even worse.

"But, I think even if we had said leave three hours early or four hours early, I don't know if that would have changed that phenomenon because you would have had a fast storm and people hanging back," said Berry.

There is a perception by those who do not work for the federal government that a two-hour early dismissal means opening the floodgates of commuters at 3 o'clock. Berry said federal employees know differently. They know feds aren't 9-to-5.

"If that was the case, it was over 20 years ago. Now feds come in - some come in as early as 5 o'clock in the morning," often to accommodate long distance commutes, "and they start leaving from 1 o'clock on."

So, said Berry, those workers should have left at 11 o'clock, two hours earlier than their normal time.

The Way of the Future

Looking back on Wednesday's experience, Berry told Federal News Radio, "if there's a silver lining to this cloud," it's telework.

Berry said even his own assistant, who was so reluctant to leave her work behind yesterday, is teleworking today. Despite being in the middle of a power outage, said Berry, she's using her iPad, "home safe and doesn't have to worry about icy roads."

Berry said managers have been encouraged to make it possible for "the clear majority, if not all, of their employees to telework and we can hopefully avoid a repeat of last night's horrible disaster."

Another lesson learned, said Berry, will be to remember what happened this week. "My apologies to folks who had a tough evening last night," said Berry. "We will continue to try to make good calls based on safety and maintaining government operations and try to maintain the consistency with that point going forward."

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