Finding Nemo, unsurprisingly, again

(Intially posted as a comment to Dave Weinberger’s blog, but expanded/edited into a bona fide rant here. Update, Feb. 13: Dave continues the discussion in his column at CNN.com.)

New England has just had a snowstorm, predicted to be of historic proportions, but eventually ending up, as always, as nothing much, except a staggeringly incompetent number of people (400,000 or so in Massachusetts alone) losing power. As a Norwegian currently in Oslo (but with nine winters in Boston (Arlington and Brookline)): New England snowstorms, despite their ferocity, are not aberrations of nature but a failure to prepare a systemic level.

It is just snow. Not a lot (well, a lot, but for a short time, as illustrated by the photo.) It shows up fast, and leaves again equally fast. It doesn’t stay the whole winter, from November until March, as it does here in the south (get it – south!) of Norway.

The fact that New England panics every time there is a flurry is due to lack of preparedness at the infrastructure level. In most of Norway power and telephone lines are underground, it is illegal not to have snow tires on your car after December 1st or thereabouts (if you drive in the snow with regular tires and go in the ditch, you are fined quite severely) and during my own and my children’s school days we have never had a snow day or any other interruption due to the weather (and we have plenty of weather). In Norway you cannot get a driver’s license without passing a driving-on-slick-surface course. The Oslo subway (or buses – what kind of drivers to you have?) has never been closed due to snow. I have never been to the store to stock up on batteries and water. (I have been to the gas station to buy gas for the snow blower ahead of a storm, though.) Our airport does not close down for snow, though there can be delays. In New England, there are public service announcements (from Thomas Menino’s office) saying “When clearing motor vehicles, remove snow around the muffler/exhaust system before starting the car”. How stupid can you get?

I just can’t get used to the New England oh-my-God-here-it-comes-again-flip-to-channel-5 attitude. I attribute this to lack of far-sightedness in planning – rather than taking the cost of modernizing the power grid and change the telephone lines to fiber all around, incrementalism wins. (Then again, I have found myself being the only driver (in a VW Vanagon with worn tires) on the 128, and the only person coming in  to work (in a Chevy Caprice).) Instead of driving responsibly you salt the roads until they are white and dogs can’t go out due to the pain the salt inflicts on their paws. Instead of having a public works division outfitted to fix things with proper equipment you resort to an army of contractors with F-250s barging out to power-plow 2 inches of wet snow that will disappear at 9am the next day anyway, just to get paid.

imageI drove (with wife and three kids) from Florida to MA during the blizzard of 96, which closed down NY and NJ. In Georgia, we saw 200 cars in the ditch, including an 18-wheeler cab-up in a tree. It looked like an 8-year old had emptied out his toy car crate. On an Interstate in North Carolina I saw a police cruiser (who had tried to cross from one direction to the other via those little police-only paths) nosed into and completely buried a six-foot pile, the blue lights forlornly spinning through the snow. Driving around Richmond, I saw people pass me doing 75 in their Cherokees on the highway, only to see them buried in a drift two miles later. In Washington (Metro population 5.6m, number of snowplows: 1) I drove around (in a Dodge Caravan with a not very advanced AWD system) a Chevy Suburban spinning on all four wheels as the owner moronically pumped the gas pedal. (Incidentally, the only institution open was the Norwegian embassy, whose employees arrived on cross-country skis.) When we got to the NJ border, we were stopped, as the turnpike was closed. I stupidly tried to argue with the cop that I was Norwegian, had 4WD, and was a former instructor in 4WD driving in the Norwegian army, that driving in the snow was easy if you went slowly and gently. He was, needless to say, not swayed. We spent the night in a motel.

Why doesn’t New England harden the grid and communications systems, put winter tires on school buses, mandate winter tires in snowy conditions, and just get rid of this stupid idea of snow days? It is winter, it happens almost every year. It is just something to get used to, minimize the consequences of and then get on with a productive life.

On the other hand, most Americans work way too much, so perhaps it is just nature’s way of giving you a much-needed break. In the meantime, you are providing quite the entertainment at Norwegian TV, for which I suppose I should be thankful.

(Images from TriStateWeather)

Update Feb. 13: Somewhat related, here is an infographic (from Curtis Whaley via Boingboing) on how to walk on ice. Put on your tailcoats and waddle away…:

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10 thoughts on “Finding Nemo, unsurprisingly, again

  1. Gunnar Eriksen

    Espen, I am commenting in English, since you wrote in English as well. And I am in Bridgeport, CT, not as you in Norway (I came back from Norway one week ago), and experienced this storm first hand. What you wrote is the most insensitive peace of garbage I have ever read, and I am ashamed that it came from a fellow Norwegian. And that you also bragged abut your driving capabilities on your trip from Florida and north is just stupid, the same details about similar accidents happening in Norway I read on the net pages in VG, Aftenposten and Dagbladet all the time during the winter months. We had about 60 – 70 cm snow here where I live in a period of 24 hours. Not long ago I read that it was chaos in the Oslo area caused by far less snow than we had.

    I met you in NYC late last year, I was not particularly impressed with you “speech” at the BI event either, and with these comments about a snow storm where 5 people lost their lives here in CT alone, and several more in the other New England states, you confirmed my initial impression of you – an intellectual snob (“aandsnobb paa godt norsk”). I think you owe people in New England an apology, especially since Boston, where you have been guest lecturing at Harvard, was one of the first cities to enforce a ban on vehicles on the roads while the storm was raging. Please spare us for similar “writings”, we expect better from a teacher at BI in Oslo, where I also studied.

    1. Espen Post author

      Gunnar – I think my main criticism is about the failure to invest in hardened infrastructure. Snowstorms in New England are much fewer than in Norway, but hit areas with much more people (and much higher population density). and they can be quite severe, like Nemo, but also not much to talk about, like the snowstorm that hit New England in October 2011 and caused widespread electricity outages because the leaves were still on the trees – which meant lots of power lines down because branches had fallen on them. Some friends of mine were without power for five days. I lived in Brookline, practically in the center of Boston, and lost power for 10 hours.

      The deaths in snow in New England occur because people drive irresponsibly or because they freeze to death in isolated situations or otherwise are harmed by lack of infrastructure (can’t get to hospitals, etc.) The difference between Norway and New England is that here in Norway we are better equipped (especially the power grid) and take it more in stride. Lack of infrastructure investment (particularly in roads) and stupid driving happens in Norway as well, but much less, as was my point.

      As for the driving bragging, take it as irony.

      As for my intellectual arrogance – thank you! I work hard to maintain that image, glad to see I succeeded!

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