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The failed Snowquester reminds us, during a time of national debate, that experts can still be wrong. (Getty Images)

Snowquester Fizzles, But We're Humbled Anyway

Mar 9, 2013 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Snowquester fizzled.

Wednesday was more or less canceled this week in official Washington, D.C. An enormous winter storm bore down on the region, threatening ice, a foot of snow in the city (more in the suburbs), and wind and misery throughout the region.

Most of the federal government was closed. I know, I know. How could they tell? Local governments and schools, too. Flights were canceled, planes diverted, and throngs descended on grocery stores, picking the shelves clean of bread, milk and toilet tissue.

North Korea doesn't need to threaten Washington, D.C., with a nuclear attack — just some snow.

Big fat snowflakes fell, but mostly fizzled on the ground. While there was pelting rain and a stiff wind, in the end there was just enough snow most places to maybe make a Slurpee.

With wincing cuts being made to government services, it would seem to be a bad time for federal agencies to look too timid to come to work in just a teensy-widdle-bit of snow. The Washington Post asked, "Did they pull the plug too early?"

As a Chicagoan, I am always tempted to ridicule the wary way in which Washingtonians shut schools and agencies when snow is simply in the forecast. But the area has not had a major snow for two years, and most municipalities don't have the equipment on hand to dig out of one. With radar and satellite imagery so detailed and persuasive, you might see why officials would close down before a snow, to avoid stranding and endangering people, especially schoolchildren.

Jeffrey Platenberg, who heads school transportation in Fairfax County, Va., said that he didn't want a lot of teenage drivers slipping and sliding on the roads to get to school, or see chock-full school buses spin their wheels.

But if schools close down, what do working parents do — park their children at Starbucks? Modern technology makes it possible for people with desk jobs of one kind or another to work electronically for a day or two. Government workers were cooped up in their homes with frisky kids in a storm, not off getting seaweed pedicures.

A spokesman for D.C.'s Mayor Vincent Gray told The Washington Post, "You can't really blame government officials for using the data the scientists gave them." And in a way, the snow forecasts falling so flat is a sound reminder, during a time of national debate, that experts can be wrong. As a former president of Harvard, Lawrence Lowell, once warned, there's a Harvard man — or scientist, economist and meteorologist — on the wrong side of every question.

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