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‘Weather wimps’ we’re not: D.C. area’s forecasting for snowfall can get complicated

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Seems like a flake of snow can't fall on a sidewalk in Washington, D.C., without some blowhard from Chicago or New York or Boston bloviating about how much better their hometown handles winter weather.

But despite how frequently the city's officials, residents and drivers are maligned as "weather wimps," the District's relationship with snow is, well, complicated.

For one thing — unlike those other cities — you never know it's coming. Only once in the past 60 years has Chicago had less than 20 inches in a season. Six times in the past 30 years, Boston had more than 5 feet of snow in a winter.

For the District, and its comparatively paltry annual average of 15.4 inches of snow, totals can fluctuate wildly — from the 0.1 inch recorded in the winter of 1997-98 to the 56 inches that fell during the "Snowmageddon" season of 2009-10.

The National Weather Service, which provided the snow totals, notes on its website that it's common for the rain-snow line for heavy storms to fall right over the District — often meaning that predictions that generate panic one day spark derision and accusations of overreaction the next.

So when city residents hear forecasts like the one for Thursday — in which a storm that crippled much of the South is creeping up the mid-Atlantic and is expected to drop 10 inches or so — it could be nothing. Or it could be epic. Might as well close the schools — as local officials did Wednesday.

Even when the winter weather hits, everyone's a critic.

President Obama notoriously dissed the city a year into his first term after his daughters' school was closed because of an ice storm in January 2008.

"I'm saying that when it comes to the weather, folks in Washington don't seem to be able to handle things," the longtime resident of Chicago said. What he seemed not to understand was that only his daughters' private school was closed. Public schools opened that day.

In northern Texas, some schools closed last month after a freak storm dropped an inch of snow on parts of the state — an inch. And the word "wimp" was never uttered.

"It's more than legal and liability. It's about safety and what is in the best interest of our students and families," said Steven Wallace, principal of the Garner Independent School District about 40 miles west of Fort Worth.

Mr. Wallace noted that the school is in a rural area with lots of lightly traveled back roads and that the school system just doesn't have access to plows and salt trucks.

By comparison, Mr. Obama's hometown budgets $20 million annually to remove snow.

The District's budget is about $5 million per year.

"People can take riffs at us all they want. This is not Chicago. We are not going to spend the same amount of government resources on snow equipment as Boston or Chicago," said Pedro Ribero, a spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray. "We get hurricanes and snow. We have to be prepared for a lot more things than they are."

In fact, the snow emergency that went into effect Wednesday was the first in the District under Mr. Gray. The decision about whether to shutter government offices and classrooms can depend on who's in charge.

As D.C. mayor, Adrian M. Fenty took a firm stand against closing city schools during storms. In February 2008, after a snow and ice storm brought every surrounding jurisdiction to a halt, Mr. Fenty kept classes in session over the objections of the teachers union, which complained that he was jeopardizing the safety of teachers and students alike.

The move won the praise of AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John B. Townsend II, who said the District was "no longer treating snow removal like a Southern city."

But even Mr. Fenty couldn't catch a break. Two years later, in the midst of what the National Weather Service described as a "life-threatening blizzard," MSNBC host Chris Matthews blasted the mayor on his cable television program for not clearing the streets fast enough.

One would have thought the mayor was sunning himself in California while residents struggled to dig out from a massive storm. Oh, wait. That was Marion Barry. The 1987 episode in which the mayor for life partied at the Super Bowl amid a blizzard back home looms large in the city's snow lore and still serves as a cautionary tale for politicians.

Chicago is as familiar with the politics of snow as it is with snow itself. Mayor Michael A. Bilandic lost a re-election bid after his mishandling of a pair of storms that dropped nearly 3 feet of snow on the Windy City in 1979.

But Chicago officials could be emulating the District's more cautious approach to closures.

After no weather-related school closures for 12 years, classes were canceled in 2011 for a blizzard that dropped 20 inches of snow on the city. It didn't stop there. Classes were canceled because of weather conditions again in 2013 and a whopping four times in January alone. Mr. Obama has yet to weigh in on those closures.

So a projected 10 inches of snow might bring the District to a halt Thursday. But now it's in good company.

Andrea Noble contributed to this report.

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