The politics of snow

A few weeks ago, in a piece on the prominence lent by our local TV affiliates to the weather, Tim Lehnert noted the siege mentality that has become common when even a few flakes start to fall:

While quick-changing coastal conditions and New England’s four seasons play a role, the biggest factor in explaining the prominence afforded local weathercasts is the collective memory of the Big One. “We’re still getting over the Blizzard of ’78 mentality,” says veteran Channel 10 weatherman John Ghiorse. More than two feet of snow fell in Providence during the two-day February 1978 storm, trapping thousands in their homes and cars, and leaving many southern New Englanders with a lemming-like tendency to clog supermarkets — reflexively buying bread and milk — when even a small amount of snow is forecast.
But our climate and once-in-a-generation severe weather events aren’t the whole story. Southern New England is hardly the only area of the country with storms and variable weather; nor is feverish coverage of low-pressure systems unique to this region. In Rhode Island — as elsewhere — high-octane weather reports are part and parcel of promoting local newscasts. Seen this way, local newscasts stoke the meteorological frenzy of viewers as much as they respond to it.

Yet it's clear that yesterday's snow storm was a bone fide news event, particularly since the government response seemed so subpar. While several factors -- the fast rate of the snowfall and the mass departure of workers from Providence -- complicated things, we've got to be able to do better than this. Liberals and conservatives agree; RI's Future and Anchor Rising are each describing the response as a failure of government. Maybe it's totally unrelated, but we know that there's not always the best communication between Governor Carcieri and Lieutenant Governor Roberts.

Sensing the worsening conditions, I split from work at about 2 yesterday, and with a short stop for groceries, it took me about an hour to travel the five miles home. The congestion and gridlock that led the newscasts was already developing, and for reasons not totally understandable.

On WLNE (Channel 6), Buddy Cianci was quick to pickup on the potential political fallout, while WJAR (10) and WPRI (12) focused more on the miserable traffic congestion and school students yet to be delivered home. We will no doubt hear a lot more about the fallout in the days to come.

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