As often happens with snowstorms, the forecasters look to have gotten it a bit wrong, with supposedly epic snowfall of two feet plus for New York City now significantly downgraded by the Weather Channel, which has a bias to overpredict, to what looks like 12 to 14 inches total.
But even with the worst of the snowstorm now hitting further north, were the extreme safety measures justified? Drivers have been ordered off the road in New York State in the designated emergency areas from 11PM, with $300 fines for violators. All the bridges and tunnels to New Jersey are closed. The New York City public transportation system has also been shut down.
The only times the transit system was closed in the past was in 2011, for Hurricane Irene, and in 2012, for Sandy. Those storm both were likely to, and in the case of Sandy, did flood significant portions of the subway system. By contrast, the blizzard of 1996, which dumped 20 inches of snow in Central Park and 24 inches at Laguardia Airport, didn’t lead to mass transit closures. Ditto with the blizzard of 2006, which left 26.9 inches of snow. The city muddled through the next day. And a hurricane scare in the 1990s (the storm’s peak winds in the city turned out to be only 40 miles per hour) led Giuliani to order city workers home at 3 PM and strongly urge private businesses to do the same. Public transportation still ran; I took a bus when it was evident (per when the eye of the storm has passed) that the storm was not as serious as it had been expected to be.
Now it may be that the subway infrastructure is worse than it was in 1996, so greater precautions were needed. But this propensity to order citizens into their homes looks to be a post 9/11 official impulse. I spent part of my childhood in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where 20 inch plus blizzards took place at least a couple of times a winter. One January, the temperature didn’t get above 0 degrees Farenheit the entire month. Everyone plugged their car in at night in the winter to keep the engine block from freezing.
This was before the days of cellphones, so if you got stuck in your car in the snow, you really could be in serious trouble, particularly since this was a small town/rural area, so it could be quite a while before you’d be rescued. But the officialdom issued plenty of warnings and let people decide for themselves. Apparently now people no longer have the right to be stupid.
Admittedly, the shutdown is overnight, starting at 11PM, and the storm is supposed to be at its worst just before dawn. The plan is to have the system running again for the morning commute. The argument given for doing it this way appears not to be just safety, but cleanup efficiency.
Now readers in areas that were hit harder may tell me that they deem the reaction to have been sensible. And the safety of transit workers may have been a concern.
But there is a lot of difference between issuing warnings and taking more forceful measures. In the 1990s hurricane that turned out not to be, most businesses closed early but some diehards, like Korean grocers and Chinese restaurants, remained open. I’m bothered by the continued creep of safety concerns being used to restrict individual movements. Maybe I’m a dinosaur, but citizens used to be deemed competent to make prudent choices.