Learning again it's not nice to ignore Mother Nature Americans once knew how to plan for extreme weather

January 14, 1996|By Thomas V. DiBacco

The economic and social impact of the Blizzard of 1996 -- in terms of damage sustained by individuals and business -- will be enormous, with merchants alone suggesting hundreds of millions of dollars lost during and after the storm.

Bad weather in modern America has a far more dramatic and costly impact than it did earlier in history when there were fewer buildings and fewer densely populated areas. Why? Because early Americans showed a healthier respect for Mother Nature and planned for her. Contemporary society is apt to pay less heed to weather, thinking instead that man and technology are paramount.

Think about it: Until Franklin D. Roosevelt's second term in office, presidents were inaugurated on March 4. Early Americans chose that date to avoid the worst ravages of winter. Despite the precaution, one president, William Henry Harrison, caught a cold during a frigid inauguration in 1841 and died about a month later.

Even Congress began sessions in line with the March date.

When the inaugural date was changed to Jan. 20 by the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in 1933, the objective was good: to ensure a faster political transition from the November election date. But it also defied winter. Inaugurations following the passage of the amendment have often been adversely affected by Old Man Winter, including John F. Kennedy's in 1961, when a heavy snow blanketed Washington the day before, necessitating enormous expenditures to clear the inaugural route.

Then there was the bitter cold weather in 1985 in Washington, with a wind chill of minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, that forced cancellation of the out-of-doors activities for Ronald Reagan's second inauguration.

From colonial times, Americans kept records about the weather, sometimes meticulous ones in order to understand cycles that vTC might assist them in planning activities for the future. Benjamin Franklin capitalized on this concern by beginning publication in 1732 of Poor Richard's Almanac, which became an annual volume filled with what Franklin referenced as "The Judgment of the Weather."

Beating the heat and cold

Even political decisions reflected planning for weather's unruly qualities: For instance, in 1786 political leaders opposed to the nation's first form of government, the Articles of Confederation, decided to convene in Annapolis in September, a month unlikely reflect summer's heat or autumn's cold. Afterward, they suggested a meeting in Philadelphia in May of the following year, a prudent choice for delegates to assemble for what would become the historic Constitutional Convention.

Even the lengthy deliberations of the convention were cognizant of sound weather planning, namely, finishing before winter arrived. That was done, of course, by mid-September.

There are other examples: Both the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War respected winter's harshness. Troops ordinarily camped out during the winter months, recognizing that battles did not need the additional adversary of horrendous weather. The concern for weather was neglected by American military officials in the Spanish-American War of 1898. This time it was not winter but the tropical summer of Cuba, where much of the war was fought. More lives were lost to disease than from battle wounds because military officials never considered Cuba's weather. As one veteran recalled the debacle:

"It's remarkable what our bodies can stand. Raw men in a heavy rain our clothing soaked to the skin heavy rains pouring down, no tents for cover standing in trenches in a foot of water and mud, day and night "

Of course, in the 20th century, American troop movements, thanks to improved technology of warfare, increasingly defied bad weather -- a little in World War I, more so in World War II, and greatly in Vietnam, where the impact of the monsoon rains and Southeast Asian heat and humidity played a far greater role in the final outcome than military historians would admit.

Southern exposure

In the days before air conditioning, many southerners built their houses in a north-south direction in order to avoid the direct east-west exposure to the sun. Trees provided additional shade. In the interior of houses, high ceilings became the rule to keep rising hot air a comfortable distance from dwellers. Of course, since the 1950s, when home air conditioning became common, builders in the South have paid little heed to tradition, resulting in houses that get too much sun and lack trees for shade. The result: high electric bills to cover cooling costs.

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