Apocalypse Snow engulfs DC

Why does snow cause such panic in Washington?

There is nothing quite like the sight of a snow­flake to terrify Washington. Missiles could rain down on the city, but snow - well, that's a different matter. "Snowmageddon" was President Obama's pithy description of the hysteria after as much as 26 inches of snow fell on DC on Saturday 6 February.

Even on the following Monday and Tuesday, the entire federal government was shut down, at a cost to taxpayers of roughly $100m a day. Not one school was open and the post office (which, supposedly, "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night" can affect) suspended normal operations.

“Snow threat grows ominous", warned the Washington Post, appalled that another 16 inches could be on its way and threaten the rest of the week, too. "Radio will be your lifeline," insisted the local news radio station WTOP, telling us that "supplies to have on hand" should include "flashlights and extra batteries" and "extra blankets".

You would never dream that people living in the town of Blue Canyon in California are used to an average annual snowfall of 240 inches; or that half a million people living in or around Buffalo, New York, can expect anything between 80 and 160 inches every year.

Flake out

So why the panic in Washington? Partly, it is because the weather is so unpredictable here that whatever happens always takes us by surprise - on 6 February 2008, precisely two years before the Great Snowfall of 2010, the temperature soared to 74°C. And because heavy snowfalls like that of last weekend are rare in DC, the city is not equipped to cope in the way Buffalo or Minneapolis, say, are. Barack Obama had been in the White House only a week before his children's school was closed when a snowflake was sighted, prompting him to sneer that schools never had "snow days" in Chicago and that "we're going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness".

Obama and the multitudes who enjoy poking fun at Washington whenever snow falls are actually missing the point, however: the smart DC and its immaculate monuments and museums that the tourists (and, dare I say it, even Obama himself) see is by no means the real, impoverished Washington so close by.

I live in the privileged white enclave of Georgetown, and this difference between appearance and reality is always succinctly symbolised for me when snow comes and Georgetown is suddenly invaded by black men wielding shovels, who go from door to door offering to clear driveways and pavements for 50 bucks or so. Who the black men are and where they come from are questions that I suspect rarely occur to most of Georgetown's 5,000 or so white people; they just come from "out there", meaning swaths of the city that most whites have never seen.

In reality, the nation's capital is a strikingly poor little city of just 61.4 square miles, with a population of just 600,000; two-thirds of them are African Americans or Latinos, and unemployment hovers at about 10 per cent. More than 100,000 lost their health insurance last year, the city has the highest incidence of HIV in the country, and a third of the population is functionally illiterate.

To rub it all in, hugely valuable real estate in DC is occupied not just by federal government buildings and those monuments and museums to which all the tourists flock, but by 174 foreign embassies and international organisations, such as the World Bank - none of which pays a penny in much-needed taxes to the city.

All of this means that poor old Washington simply can't afford to swing into action like Buffalo or Chicago whenever the snowflakes flutter down. The maddening conundrum for Washington is that while all its "closings" may cost $100m a day, the city can afford only slightly less than $1m a year for snow removal. In the past week it has nevertheless had 750 employees working 12-hour shifts with 270 pieces of equipment. This is in contrast to the aftermath of the last great snowfall, in 1996, when the city was all but insolvent and more than 90 of its 100 or so snowploughs proved to be out of commission.

White houses

This, mind, is all about the city itself. The "DC area" and "metropolitan Washington" mean something else entirely, and this is where theconundrum comes in. Metropolitan Washington's population is close to six million. It is predominantly white and leeches shamelessly off the city, although it is the first to complain about the city's inefficient snow clearance (read "blacks").

Thus prosperous white lawyers or financiers can opt to live in the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia where they pay lower taxes for better services, schools, and so on, but commute in every day so that their law firms or companies can enjoy the prestige of having a Washington DC location and letterhead. This result is that the daytime population of DC is well over a million - but at the end of the day, the commuters return to their well-salted and gritted suburbs, all too ready to grumble about how hopeless the city, whose imprimatur is so invaluable to them, really is. Yet they do not pay a cent towards the costs of dealing with the snow in DC, either.

Perhaps the solution is for the city to bring in the likes of Ken Livingstone to implement stringent congestion charges for incoming suburban commuters? I would certainly favour that. Justice would be served, the anti-Washington taunts would stop, and the city in which we live and work would no longer come to a standstill every time a distant snowflake is so much as glimpsed.

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 15 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Everything you know about Islam is wrong