Letter from Boston: The Great Pseudo-Blizzard of 2015

Can Anything Stop the Winter Hype Machine?

Oh give us a break already.

Oh give us a break already.

January 27, 2015

HERE IN BOSTON, the “Blizzard of the Century,” as some were calling it, has blown through, leaving in its wake about two feet of snow and enough media hype and citizen hysteria to suffocate an entire city. Oh, they were calling it everything: the “Blizzard of the Century,” an “epic storm,” a “behemoth,” and “one of the worst ever.”

I was outside earlier, shoveling out our walkway, and what I saw looked no different from a dozen other snowstorms we’ve had in recent years. By Thursday the shops and stores all will be open again, the roads will be full of cars and people back to work, etc. The shoveling took about thirty minutes.

It’s the media that makes a spectacle of these things. Like with plane crashes, it’s all about feeding the news monster, and the latest one is always the worst, always the biggest, always the most worthy of delirious wall-to-wall coverage. There’s no sense of perspective any more, even with the weather.

Among the biggest offenders in these parts is our hometown paper, the Boston Globe. When it comes to a headline shouldn’t the size of the typeface be proportional to the severity of the event being screamed about? Look at that headline above. What would a real catastrophe look like on the the front page? No surprise, though, as the Globe has become more and more tabloidy in recent years and its reporters have a worsening tendency to overplay local stories (the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings being the most obnoxious example).

In decades past, a storm like this one wouldn’t have received a tenth as much attention. Five years from now, when somebody asks, “Remember the big blizzard of 2015?” the reaction will be a puzzled look. “I think so. Maybe. Was that the one…?”

View from the author's porch, January 27th.

View from the author’s porch, January 27th.

Let’s go back 37 years, to the rightfully famous Blizzard of ’78. Now that was a epic storm. Those who grew up around here have never forgotten it, and never will.

In ’78 we had nearly three feet of snow and hurricane-force winds. I remember looking out the window of my bedroom and the height of the blizzard and not being able to see the house across the street, fewer than a hundred feet away. A literal whiteout. And by chance the storm hit on the night of the highest tide of the year, resulting in catastrophic flooding up and down the Massachusetts coastline.

At Revere Beach, two miles from where I lived, violent waves lifted the enormous shingled roofs from the tops of the beachfront pavilions and bandstands and carried them inland. Hundreds of homes in the area were destroyed or seriously damaged. Highways shut down and people were stuck for days in their cars. Fourteen people died from carbon monoxide poisoning in stranded vehicles. We had ten-foot show drifts in our back yard.

Somewhere I have pictures of the national guard helicopters — helicopters — that were called to carry in food and supplies. For two days straight the Hueys landed in the parking lot of the old Stop & Shop supermarket on Broadway. Later the city gave out hundred-dollar food vouchers to residents. Once the supermarkets reopened, we hauled groceries home on the back of sleds. This was at least a few days after the blizzard and the city streets were still impassable.

Kids, of course, love snowstorms. For me one of the most exciting rituals of childhood was turning on the radio at 7 a.m. to hear the school cancellations. This week, here in Somerville, the kids are gonna get a couple of days off. In ’78, in Revere, school was called off for two weeks.

To be fair, one of the things that makes a particular storm “worse” than another is the level of expectation and preparation. Nowadays when a storm hits, city leaders hunker down in crisis rooms that look like NASA control. The weather is tracked with high-tech meteorological equipment; road and school closures are ordered preemptively to avoid chaos and gridlock later on. In ’78, Governor Dukakis and his aides gathered around an old office table with a couple of rotary-dial phones and a black-and-white television tuned to the local news (seriously, there are pictures of this). Maybe there can’t be another ’78, because our forecasting tools are so much better and our methods of preparation so a lot more robust.

Which, if you ask me, takes most of the fun out of it.

Triumph of the corn broom.  Digging out after the great winter cataclysm of 2015. (The box in the background is the author's beehive.)

Triumph of the corn broom. Digging out after the great winter cataclysm of 2015.
(The box in the background is the author’s beehive.)

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14 Responses to “Letter from Boston: The Great Pseudo-Blizzard of 2015”
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  1. Rainman says:

    I was living in Back Bay in 78. It’s not a true emergency until they close the packies.

  2. Rainman says:

    I was living in Back Bay in 78. It’s not a true emergency until they close the packies,

  3. Dave says:

    I was living on Elm Street in Porter Square in 1978 and I can tell you I enjoyed the hell out of that blizzard. We skied in to Harvard Square along a wonderfully quiet Mass Ave, no cars, no buses, no “T”, and the sky was clear of smoke and exhaust. Being originally from Buffalo, blizzards were not a big deal for me, usually. But, as you say, that’s one I’ll never forget.

    I live in Thailand now and missed this year’s huge snow storm in Buffalo, and Boston. I’m tired of snow for the most part but I would sure enjoy going through another big one someday. Enjoy it for a day or two and then get out before I have to scrape my windshield. Ha Ha

  4. UncleStu says:

    When I lived in Florida, the media hype was about hurricanes. Sometimes they actually did hit hard, sometimes they weren’t much, and sometimes they missed us altogether.

    The result of the over-hyping was the “boy who cried wolf” syndrome. Those that experienced the mild or missed storms began to ignore all the warnings, and wound up being very sorry they didn’t respect Mother Nature. (“I’m not leaving my house – my boat – my dog.” or worse, “I just want to see what it’s really like.”)

    Even when it is not over-hyped, there is just so much the forecasters can do. Mother Nature has the last word.

    I lived through hurricane Andrew and a few others, taking all possible precautions short of fleeing.

    If I still lived there, I would flee – far away – early in the game.

    Better safe than sorry – discretion is the better part of valor.

  5. I used to love snow storms and still do! They are spectacular and beautiful. Obviously I don’t want anyone to get hurt, but I love a good storm from the cozy shelter of my house.

    The media part is just repulsive. I don’t have mainstream tv anymore and what a relief. When I’m at the airport or hotel and I’m exposed to that hysteria and negativity I find it shocking and disturbing. Hopefully as there are more and more cord cutters this will be commonplace and they will have to think of another approach to get people to watch.

  6. David M. says:

    Hi Patrick.

    Don’t forget the political aspect, too. When then governor Patrick declared a snow emergency last year for the previous “Blizzard of Death”, the media lined up to let him have it. Governor Baker does it this time, and everyone is fawning over his leadership. The only difference was the letter after his name.

    To put things in perspective, I remember walking home from school during the early stages of the Blizzard of 78 (Yes, we went to school that morning.) Most of Massachusetts cancelled school more than 24 hours in advance this time.

  7. c. bryan says:

    Pat – – The Valentine’s Day blizzard of 1960 closed the entire East coast. For an Arizona kid in the Army then near Ayer, Mass., it was some experience. But my friends from Maine said that was nothing. I guess Booth Bay has some stories. You can keep it. Here in Cypress, CA only the ground shakes – and the palms are flake free (or nearly).

  8. James says:

    I remember 1978 — I was in New Jersey, and we had 2 feet. Being in high school, I had to shovel the driveway. Problem was, 10 days before we had 17 inches, and it hadn’t melted yet, so this meant throwing snow over drifts over my head.

    Then, when the snow plows finally came down the street, they blocked the driveway again….

  9. nicholas Robinson says:

    I just don’t know what to say anymore. “Blaring headlines” just is not hyperbolic enough a term to describe what presently goes on on MOST news websites.

    I don’t buy my local newspaper any more (The Montreal Gazette) and I don’t watch TV news, so basically I get all my news from the Web. And if you had been rambling across the Web in the last few days you really, really would have been under the impression that Independence Day was coming to New York City — finally.

    Although they didn’t overtly say so, CNN’s website suggested that New York was facing a Great Red Spot of a storm; a Storm of Storms, or, as Saddam, master of understatement would have put it, “The Mother of all Storms.”

    Poor, poor New York, thought I; they always get the worst luck. Hey, I used to live on E. 76th, so I have a soft spot for those “gruff New Yorkers” (gather ALL the clich├ęs up while ye may!)

    I imagined a deserted landscape with only the wind howling through the concrete canyons — snow eight feet deep covering up the entrances to most buildings; hundreds, perhaps thousands, entombed within their makeshift bunkers, help unable to get to them. Small infants wailing as their mothers helplessly looked on, stress having terminated all possibilities of breast-feeding.

    Men, roaming through the subway tunnels, flaming torches leading the way as they seek somewhere — anywhere — to exit the subterranean Hell.

    The Storm of the Millennium. Armageddon. In 72-point, boldface all-caps on CNN’s new, revamped Hysteria page.

    Welcome to the post-newspaper age.

  10. Alex says:

    I entirely agree with your third paragraph, about the media. A correlary is a lack of reasonableness and moderation — aided and abetted by the ubiquitous “Comments” section attached to so many news and magazine articles. As Slate put it so well, “outrage has become the default mode for politicians, pundits, critics and, with the rise of social media, the rest of us.” I’m glad that this Comments section remains civil and reasonable. It takes after its father, no doubt.

    Here’s the Slate article: http://tinyurl.com/mg2cv5e

  11. Paul says:

    Here in northern Illinois, my parents still talk about the New Year’s Blizzard of 1979, a few months before I was born. Snow drifted in to the eaves of their house. TV reporters were literally stuck at the TV stations for days. Snow piles along the sides of the road were six or more feet high from the massive snowfall that winter. My parents’ subdivision wasn’t plowed out until two days AFTER the snow quit. Of course, once I moved to Minnesota I began hearing about the infamous “Halloween Blizzard” from the 90s that people still talk about. Somehow I doubt the Boston 2015 Blizzard, in the long run, will be remembered like these two examples.

  12. Beehive? I don’t suppose you harvest any of that honey for some tasty home-brewed mead, do you?

  13. Daniel Ullman says:

    Less to do with the media and more to do with the problem of officially predicting future events. As noted many times before, a 100% chance of rain does not mean it is currently raining. It merely means that, every other times conditions were such, it rained. If it does not happen this time does not mean the forecast was incorrect.

  14. Andy says:

    This is what we call “Tuesday” in Minnesota. All kidding aside, while you were “digging” yourself out, it was a balmy 45 in Minneapolis. As for your points about the press … I think they’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole.