Friday, February 4, 2011

It Could Happen Tomorrow...

During this winter of New York City’s discontent, I’ve occasionally thought back five years – to my involvement in a massive PR push for the premiere of The Weather Channel series, “It Could Happen Tomorrow.” Over the Christmas holiday season, as a strike stopped mass transit for a couple of days, we feverishly worked to promote the upcoming premiere episode – about what could happen if a massive hurricane struck the city.

Flash forward to this past holiday season – mass transit was again disrupted for a couple of days, this time by a blizzard.  So were lots of other things, from car traffic to garbage pickups to mayoral approval ratings. And since then, the entire city has seemed to be playing its own version of “It Could Happen Tomorrow.  But let's not forget the key second word of that title –  could, not will.

Ok, New York this winter has endured a couple of massive snowstorms, including that blizzard, along with a fair number of smaller ones.  And the nasty weather has certainly caused a mess.  On my own block, the Sanitation Department didn’t pick up the paper recyclables for some five weeks – corner-to-corner, our sidewalk looked like the remnants of a print publishing empire mixed in with cereal boxes, all laid out on a bed of dirty white carpeting.

Brooklyn, Winter 2011
(photo by Les Luchter)

So folks certainly have a right to be concerned. And we all need to be prepared for any potential storm. But there’s a difference between prepared and pre-emptive, between could and will.

A couple of weeks ago, my niece was all geared up to fly from JFK to Europe to begin a much-anticipated semester abroad. Due to a winter storm “warning,” her flight was canceled more than a full day in advance, yet the “storm” turned into a light dusting.  

Earlier this week, I was supposed to have a doctor’s appointment.  It didn’t happen because, two days prior, the MD’s office called to say that all appointments were being canceled due to another winter storm warning. The streets were going to be icy and they were looking out for our safety. Well thanks.

By the following day, the storm “warning” had been downgraded down to an “advisory,” but then got transformed into an even scarier “Ice Storm Warning.” (I know all this because I get handy alerts from my pals at The Weather Channel!)

And yes, it was icy that morning -- before the precipitation turned to rain at around 8 a.m.  I ran an errand late morning when I could have been on the way to my appointment, and the streets were quite navigable.

What everyone seems to have forgotten in the wake of our giant snowfalls is that weather forecasts, by their very nature, are apt to change. Since when have they been seen as infallible?

For years, I've complained about the "snowmongering" of local media, especially local television news. "Snow is coming," they would blare during station breaks.  "Details at 11." Then, if you stuck around, you'd learn that there was half-an-inch expected up in the Catskills, or at least in the infamous "Northern New Jersey." (thanks to my Weather Channel alerts, I can now forgo this process :) )

I always thought I had invented the term "snowmongering" as one of my major contributions to contemporary civilization. But great minds think alike, I guess. I just did a Google search, and "snowmongering" is right there in the Urban Dictionary: "when someone over exaggerates how much snow there truly is...."

These days, snowmongering has extended from the media to the government, private enterprises and seemingly everyone on the block. If there's a flake in the forecast, the entire city starts preparing for a deluge. The departments of Sanitation and Emergency Management issue their own "snow alerts," one of several terrorism-like levels preceding an actual emergency. The local Trader Joe's gets mobbed midday (trust me, it's usually rather manageable at 3 p.m.!) as folks rush to stock their pantries. The hardware store runs out of salt. The kids start praying for another day off from school.

Trust me, I don't take snowstorms lightly. I don’t relish climbing out the ground-floor window to help excavate our front door, as I did in December. All that white stuff isn't fun, unless you're building snowmen or igloos, or sledding, or throwing snowballs (and, quite often, as was the case last week, the snow can be quite pretty). But I guess my college days in Syracuse, where two-foot storms were routine and the city handled the cleanup with a minimum of fuss, has enured me somewhat to the phenomenon.

By the way, the last blizzard to hit New York City before this winter happened about a month after the  premiere of "It Could Happen Tomorrow." On Feb. 11-12, a record 26.9 inches fell in Central Park.  The snowmongerers had a field day. I woke up ready for some heavy-duty shoveling.  But somehow the brunt of the storm had completely missed Brooklyn and even lower Manhattan. We had just a few inches on the ground.

So, it could have happened, but didn’t.  Could it happen tomorrow, though?

The forecast now calls for a “wintry mix.”

Let's at least wait for the first flake to fall before falling all over ourselves in panic.