Winter-tested cities amused by our plight

February 11, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley | mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

As Baltimore struggles with an unprecedented 6 feet or more of snow this winter, it's reassuring to know that our fellow citizens in the rest of the country sympathize wholeheartedly with our plight. They would never, ever, ever taunt us when we are down.

"Our roads are clear and dry. How are yours?" asks Peter O'Connor, commissioner of public works for the city of Syracuse, N.Y., which so far this year has had more than 74 inches of snow.

Matt Smith, a spokesman for Chicago's Department of Streets and Sanitation, expressed a praiseworthy willingness to lend a hand.

"Come up here, and we'll show you how a real city handles winter," Smith says, before bragging that the Windy City didn't shut down Wednesday even while setting weather records of its own.

Up north in St. Paul, Minn., city press officer Bob Hume was equally solicitous, saying, "I hope you amateurs are doing well with that sprinkling of snow you're getting out there."

The Mid-Atlantic region is no longer merely the part of the United States with the worst weather this week. It also is the nation's unofficial center for the creation of schadenfreude, or deriving pleasure from someone else's misfortune.

In a way, it's hard to blame them. St. Paul, Syracuse and Chicago are among the coldest and snowiest cities in the country. Residents there get tired of visitors who complain about having to don down coats for a Fourth of July barbecue.

They've forced smiles once too often when asked if they have to refrigerate their groceries to keep them from freezing. They're been good- humored when guests refer to their city's four seasons as "almost winter, winter, still winter and road construction."

It's payback time.

During a 10-minute conversation, Joe Buck, director of the Juneau, Alaska, Department of Public Works, mentioned not once, not twice, but three times, that the temperature there Wednesday was 42 degrees.

"And did I tell you," he asks, "that we have no snow on the ground at all? The ground here is completely bare. I don't mean to rub it in."

Yes, Joe, you do.

If Buck seems a bit giddy, it's understandable. Juneau gets an average of more than 93 inches of snow a year, and three years ago, a staggering 200 inches fell at the local airport.

"People who live here are spoiled," Buck says. "If we get 24 inches overnight, it's just expected that by morning, all the streets will be cleared and children will leave for school on time at 7 a.m. People complain if there's a little bit of ice on the sidewalks."

Jessica Stephens, a spokeswoman for the Flagstaff, Ariz., Convention & Visitors Bureau, struggled to seem offhand when told that Baltimore broke its old record for the snowiest winter in history Wednesday morning when we hit the 63-inch mark. But she couldn't keep a straight face for long.

"We had 65 inches this year from just one storm in the middle of January," she says, adding that the city, which is at an elevation of 7,000 feet, normally records more than 100 inches of snow a year.

"We don't even measure it in inches anymore. We measure in feet. But we don't stress about it," she says. "You'll never see anyone in Flagstaff sitting inside and staring out the window. If we can't get out in our cars, we'll strap on our cross-country skis or a pair of snowshoes and ski down the middle of the road."

And Mayor Matt Ryan of Binghamton, N.Y., has a message for his little sister who lives in Baltimore: Only cowards resort to call-blocking. Go ahead and pick up the phone.

Ryan plans to really pile it on his younger sibling, a schoolteacher who moved to the Baltimore area in the mid-1990s because she didn't like the harsh winters. Though Binghamton averages more than 84 inches of snow annually, this year the city has recorded a paltry 44 inches, or less than two-thirds of the snowfall that has pummeled Baltimore.

"I've tried to call my sister several times, but I haven't been able to reach her," Ryan says.

"She's probably been outside shoveling snow. Not only does she live in Baltimore, she has a house in Ocean City, and she's always going on and on about how much better the weather is in Maryland. As soon as I can reach her, I'm going to say, 'How's that working for you?' "

Very funny. But amid the widespread glee, a note of genuine concern could be detected in every one of those conversations. O'Connor, Buck and the rest are public officials. They've struggled with the same problems of clogged roads, imprudent motorists and Mother Nature's peculiar sense of humor.

Wednesday night, Buck caught part of a television interview with the road czar in Washington, D.C.

"This is our profession: We battle snow and ice, and I don't wish what you're going through on anybody," Buck says.

"I felt so sorry for that guy when I saw him on TV. There's no way that he's going to have the equipment that he needs to fight a snow like this one. I saw the look on his face. I saw the little blades he has on his snowplows. I feel bad for him. I really, really do."

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