For Marylanders, a crisis before the first flake falls Days after blizzard, snow still had the upper hand

January 14, 1996|By Sandy Banisky and James Bock | Sandy Banisky and James Bock,SUN STAFF

A week after the big snow, Baltimore is still flailing around like a beetle on its back, a huge urban beetle stunned by winter.

Day after day, the region hasn't been able to right itself. The ease of life before the storm is just a warm memory. Commuters fumed as narrowed streets choked traffic. Vehicles remained buried in last Sunday's drifts. Schools never opened. Many sidewalks were still unshoveled, as if the building owners believe only spring can clear the streets.

Is it a defeatist mentality -- what psychologists call learned helplessness -- that makes Baltimoreans succumb to snow?

"You know how Baltimoreans are," said 5th District City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton. "When there's bad weather, we just want to get our food and stay inside."

Not even the city's severest critics believe that Baltimore could have expected life to proceed as usual last Sunday or Monday or Tuesday. But by Thursday and Friday, residents wanted to know why things weren't running a little more smoothly.

Days after the blizzard, the Baltimore Department of Public Works conceded that the snow still had the upper hand.

"How can we plow, put salt down and tow at the same time?" asked an exasperated George Balog, the city's public works director. "I don't know logistically how we could have done better."

Part of Baltimore's snow phobia might lie in lack of experience. Cities with frequent snowstorms cope better with winter.

In Anchorage, Alaska, where two storms each dumped 2 feet of snow on the city before Christmas 1994, schools didn't close and city streets were open, said James Fero, the public works director.

In Pittsburgh, a city divided by hills and rivers, even alleys are plowed, said Ralph Kraszewski, director of public works. In Manchester, N.H., the city requires that all cars be off all streets during a snow emergency. Homeowners must pull cars into driveways or move them to public lots, said Frank Thomas, public works director.

In Baltimore, few cars were towed off main routes until midweek, although Mr. Balog declared a snow emergency last Saturday night in anticipation of the storm. Many were simply ticketed -- a reprimand to the owner, but no help in clearing clogged traffic arteries.

Why not tow? "There are so many cars, that's all we'd be doing is removing cars," Mr. Balog said, making the parking ban sound like an ordinance that simply can never be enforced.

Former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who had only praise for the city's effort, noted: "The city doesn't have enough equipment, never will have enough equipment to handle a snow like this."

B6 But equipment apparently isn't the entire problem.

Can-do attitude

Cleveland, which gets Great Lakes snows, and hilly Pittsburgh have about the same ratio as Baltimore of snow-removal equipment to street miles, about one truck for every 11 miles of road.

What those cities share is pride in a can-do attitude and a belief that snow must be vanquished.

Baltimore-area schools didn't open all week, though temperatures warmed by Thursday and main routes were passable.

"There should have been school," Mr. Schaefer said. "You get into a habit of not being able to handle the snow. The easiest thing is to call it off. It's tough, but you've got to get used to it."

School officials said they put children's safety first. But that's exactly what administrators said in New York, which got as much snow as Baltimore and opened its schools Wednesday, as did many of its suburbs. Half the New York pupils showed up, and 90 percent of teachers and staff.

Baltimoreans might argue that many students there can take the subway to class. But in suburban Stamford, Conn., schools were open Wednesday as well. Affluent Greenwich, next door, apparently isn't raising any wimps: It opened its schools Tuesday, a half-day after the huge storm ended.

'Group psychosis'

So what's Baltimore's problem, on the streets and in the schools?

"It's group psychosis," said Allan Prell, a WBAL-AM talk show host who heard about almost nothing but snow all last week. "If everyone said it doesn't matter, it wouldn't matter. One person after another says how big a deal it is until finally you're convinced it's a big deal.

Alderman Carl O. Snowden of Annapolis said the Baltimore area is neither prepared physically nor psychologically for snow.

"You get this snow syndrome where you prepare to become like a bear and hibernate for what people think will be months. A great deal of it is psychological."

Patti Caplan, a Howard County schools spokeswoman, defends the decision to close schools for safety reasons. But Ms. Caplan, who grew up with plenty of snow in Iowa, acknowledges that there's a "different mind-set" in Maryland.

"I think the media creates it," she said. "Newscasts in Iowa, when there's going to be a heavy snow, don't lead with it. Out here it's a crisis before the first flake falls."

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