A Canadian view of Washington's 'Snowmageddon': Paul Hunter

The winter storm has turned Washington D.C into a ghost town. Businesses are closed, schools are shut and the streets are empty even though, as CBC's Paul Hunter observes, it really truly seriously just isn’t that bad.
Workmen clear snow from the steps on Capitol Hill in Washington. The winter weather has turned D.C. into a ghost town. Businesses are closed, schools are shut and the streets are empty. (J.Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Full disclosure:  I once drove my American-bought car with its ridiculously thin tread summer tires up to Canada in the wintertime. 

Not the smartest thing I’ve ever done. 

No sooner had I passed customs than I was stuck on an embarrassingly small hill with wheels spinning in snow that was, to put it generously, not quite ankle-deep.  A kind passerby glanced knowingly at my DC plates and helped push.

I felt humiliated and un-Canadian.  Had I forgotten every wintry lesson I’d ever learned?  I didn’t even have a brush in the trunk. 

I immediately understood this much:  Nothing in or from America works when it snows.  At least nothing from south of, let’s say, Pittsburgh.  And that now includes me.

U.S. winter storm blamed for 17 deaths

Which brings us to today.

It snowed down here overnight.  And as it is whenever Washington tries to cope with what Canadians fondly call ‘winter’ this city has imploded.  You’ve seen the language:  SnowmageddonSnowpocalypse!  The End Of The World As We Snow It!

When snow is in the forecast in Canada we might top up on a bit of salt or sand for the driveway.  Here, with Action News weather experts furrowing their brows and speaking gravely, crowds pack into grocery and hardware stores to stock up on generators, fresh water and canned goods. 

I’m not joking. The lineups are incredible. I’ve seen the emptied shelves.  If this wasn’t liberal DC I’d half expect a run on gun stores too. 

Few here seem to own boots.  I’ve seen Washingtonians wrap plastic grocery bags over their shoes to then tiptoe through the slop.

Last time it snowed I watched and cringed as a man used a sharp aluminum shovel to poke at and then clear a few centimeters’ worth from the hood of his soon-to-be-deeply-scratched Mercedes.

Just last night, walking home from CBC as the snow began to fall but with the streets still merely wet and clear I decided to hail a cab.

“They just declared a snow emergency,” the driver tells me. “So it’ll be a 15 dollar surcharge on your fare.”

I got out and walked the five blocks home.  

Today, in the lingo of weather channel enthusiasts, the ‘Winter Storm Warning remains in effect’ even though there’s nothing coming down and the temperature is just above freezing.  

It's actually quite mild but DC is a ghost town.  Businesses are closed, schools are shut and the streets are empty even though it really truly seriously just isn’t that bad.  It looks like a typical February day anywhere in Canada.  It’s a little slushy but with lower taxes.

Even former Chicagoan Barack Obama has mocked Washington for its epic fails at the hint of a flurry.  

Another cab driver here on another snowy day once told me a lot of it goes back to the days of former mayor Marion Barry (North America’s other crack-smoking city leader).  

In January 1987, DC was smacked with a couple of monster storms but as the snow fell Mayor Barry was partying and playing tennis out in sunny California.  His city sat paralyzed with not enough plows, sand, salt or hope.  They labeled that one The Blizzard Of Indifference.

Back then, said the cabbie, people actually ventured out in bad weather.  But once downtown on the un-cleared streets and sidewalks many slipped, fell and — this being America — called their lawyers.  Litigation-mageddonLawsuit-pocalypse!

And so to this day, goes the story, businesses won’t open and people won’t dare step outside at even the whisper of snow.

“Oh,” the driver added, “And that’ll be an extra fifteen dollars.”