Can Anything Stop the Winter Hype Machine?
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…?”
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.