Help! We can't control the snow

Late one night last week, there was a loud rapping on my front door. It was past ten o'clock, when all good Georgetowners are safely tucked up in bed. The knocking was persistent, though. Finally, I went to answer and found a hysterical woman with an eastern European accent demanding to be let in. I've lived in Georgetown (a posh district of Washington) ten years, long enough to have acquired a horribly un-neighbourly instinct: anybody knocking on your door at that time of night is up to no good. Perhaps the woman had a male accomplice waiting in the shadows with a gun?

But no. I let the woman in, only to find her puce with embarrassment and saying she was desperate to use the lavatory. She had been stuck in traffic for four hours, she sobbed, and was still trying to get home. I believed her immediately: my side road had been gridlocked for several hours, and alarmist news bulletins had told me that thousands of Washington commuters were still trying to get home even that late at night.

You might assume the city had been engulfed by a blizzard of several feet of snow, but official figures record that just 0.4 inches of gentle snow had actually fallen - just enough for kids to be able to gather up snowballs next morning. Yet Washington, the centre of unprecedented world might, falls apart like that poor lady when faced with anything that looks even remotely like a snowflake. Mass hysteria sets in.

For reasons I still can't fathom - after all, the number of cars were the same as usual and conditions only slightly more difficult - the roads really do become hopelessly congested. Before dawn next morning, we all rushed to our radios or websites: yes, that 0.4 inches of snow had caused all schools and countless other Washington institutions to be closed the next day.

It was the same, except even worse, last Tuesday. This time it started snowing at 3am, and within an hour there was a couple of inches on the ground. The decision was made by 5am: all local schools would be shut. Two or three hours later, I counted no fewer than 151 more places closed because of the snow: the entire US government (explaining why Donna Shalala, Clinton's secretary of state for health and human services, was exercising her dog in my local park that afternoon), all DC courts (other than for emergency arraignments), Nasa's wing in Maryland, the Marine Corps HQ in Quantico, even the National Security Agency - all, pathetically, out of action.

Switch on the television, meanwhile, and that perpetual, prerequisite sense of urgent threat that I wrote about a few months ago was in full swing. A "winter storm warning is in effect", we are told (translation: we can expect some wintry weather). A "rapidly developing low-pressure area" was rushing up the East Coast, the National Weather Service warned us. Keep warm and stay at home if you possibly can! Check that elderly neighbours are safe! Keep emergency food supplies with fresh water and flashlights (don't forget a supply of batteries) in case of power cuts! Stay off the roads! Don't panic! Keep calm at all times!

I soon found serenity by switching off the television and listening to John Eliot Gardiner's Bach cantatas on Radio 3, via the Internet. But I could not stop asking myself why the world's most powerful city collapses so helplessly when faced with routine winter weather. There are rational explanations, of course: the city is desperately poor, and add that to years of poor government under former mayor Marion Barry, and there is usually a woeful lack of snowploughs and grit. DC falls between the north and the south geographically and climatically, as well as politically and socially: only three or four days before the first snowfall, it had been 70 degrees, and (unlike, say, New Yorkers or Chicagoans) Washingtonians can never be certain whether their winters will reflect the warmth of the south or the cold of the north.

But those are the rational explanations. What I think really goes on is that a collective psychology - and, yes, a mass hysteria - overcomes Washington precisely because it is the city of ultimate power. Weather remains the one thing that even its power-brokers cannot control; ergo, it is something to panic about. Everything else can be striven for and achieved, but the weather is the one thing that's bigger than - well, even the Federal Government or the National Security Agency or Nasa or cabinet members such as Donna Shalala.

Second to this, I suspect, is that for the same reasons bad weather provides a welcome excuse to wimp out. Flu or divorces or periods are not good enough excuses to stay home in so workaholic a city, but uncontrollable factors such as snow - made to seem grotesquely scary by television people striving to create that sense of threat - provide a much-needed cop-out for taking the day off (though I, for one, don't begrudge Ms Shalala the chance to take her dog for a walk in the park on a weekday afternoon).

Indeed, with the hysteria induced by a few snowflakes in full swing, my heart sank when the phone rang late on Tuesday afternoon: was my 8am breakfast with Geoff Hoon, the British Defence Secretary, next day going to be cancelled like everything else? Of course not, said the lady from the British Embassy. We're British. Made of sterner stuff than that. It was almost enough, once those Bach cantatas on Radio 3 were over, to give myself a quick blast of "Land of Hope and Glory" - and to give thanks that I'm not a wimpy Washingtonian.

"Keep warm and keep safe," the local news channel still kept urging us as I set out for my scrambled eggs with Hoon.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 31 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why arms sales are bad for Britain