CHICAGO — The forecast: a mighty winter blizzard sure to dump a record-setting blanket of snow that will grow from inches to feet overnight, just in time for rush hour.
When it happened this month in Washington, they called it "Snowpocalypse" and an overwhelmed city couldn't keep its streets clear. When it happened last week in Chicago, they called it "Tuesday" and kept the blacktop black from first flakes to final drifts.
"I'd take my plow drivers and put them up against anyone in North America," said Bobby Richardson, Chicago's snow removal boss. "Ten inches, a foot of snow? That's nothing for us. Nothing."
That's not the case outside of Chicago and other cities in the American snow belt, where the strategy for cleaning the streets of winter's wrath is often based on a calculated risk that snow won't fall where snow usually doesn't. Most years, that gamble pays off. But this winter, historic blizzards have struck cities where traffic-snarling snowfalls are rare or even unheard of, exposing the dangers of counting on the Big One not to hit.
"You won't see bare pavement for at least three weeks — and that's if we don't get another snow next week," Steve Shannon, an operations manager at the Virginia Department of Transportation, said late last week about suburban Washington's Fairfax County.
To be fair, the one-two punch of storms that socked the East Coast this month were record-setting, with snow falling so fast and deep that Washington pulled its plows from the road. A quarter were knocked out of commission entirely by the struggle of trying to move so much snow off the streets.
And yet Richardson and his legendary snow-clearing legions argue that keeping a city moving during such a blizzard isn't an insurmountable task. Should as much snow fall on Chicago as it did in Washington this month, the city's more than 500 plows and 1,000 workers — hardened by years of work in tough Midwestern winters — are prepared to wipe it all away.
"Chicago would get through such a storm, and while it would not be total normalcy, the city would still function," said Matt Smith, a spokesman for the city's Department of Streets and Sanitation.
Buried by snow this month, cities across the Mid-Atlantic states were forced to scramble to locate plows, hiring hundreds from private contractors and seeking help from neighboring states. No place seemed more unprepared for the weather than the Washington area: The federal government shut down for days as District residents complained of a spotty, haphazard response that left some streets all but abandoned.
And in the South, where even a light dusting is enough to paralyze commuters until the weather warms up and melts away the problem, most major cities have only a handful of plows — if any at all. In Dallas, a city of 1.2 million people but not a single dedicated snow plow, authorities count on snowflakes melting the minute they touch the ground.
That didn't happen last week, when the worst storm in nearly five decades dropped more than a foot of snow in northern Texas. All the city could do was send reconnaissance teams to identify slick spots and direct trucks to spread sand.
"Historically, that has handled every situation we face," city spokesman Frank Libra said.
So, which city is best at cleaning up after the Big One? Chicago, Buffalo, N.Y., or some other snowy locale? Those who study the business of providing such services say looking at comparable data is the only way to credibly assess whether one snow removal strategy beats another. But not only does such information not exist, the hundreds of variables involved complicate any effort to devise a master strategy.
For example, St. Paul, Minn., is far hillier than its Twin Cities counterpart of Minneapolis, which is filled with more alleys and more cars — obstacles that plows must dodge. Each snowfall is different, too: light, powdery snow falls when the temperatures drop close to zero, and wet, heavy snow comes when the temperature hovers around freezing.
"The snow and ice community has struggled with this topic for years as the methods, equipment, availability of resources and most importantly, level of service and winter severity, vary enormously from state to state, region to region," said Caleb Dobbins, a state maintenance engineer at the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.
What can be measured is preparation. With an annual average snowfall of 38 inches, Chicago maintains a fleet of 300 trucks that are specifically designed for removing snow and budgeted $17 million for the work this winter. Washington, with an average of 19.4 inches of snow each year, has 200 regular trucks that can be fitted with plow blades and a snow budget of $6 million.
Some Washington residents say the district is in a no-win situation: slammed for not being prepared when the Big One hits, but likely to face criticism if it spent much more on snow removal.
"I don't know how prudent it would be to throw millions of taxpayer dollars at a problem that may not rear its head in a century," said Mike DeBonis, a columnist for the Washington City Paper.
If the already cash-strapped city wanted to spend more on snow, he added, it would be forced to cut other, arguably higher priority services, such as garbage collection or tree trimming.
Head farther South and the preparation naturally gets even thinner. In Pensacola, Fla., there is no budget for snow removal. The city has a fertilizer spreader that can work with sand, but no snow-clearing master plan that in snowbelt cities typically includes target times for clearing streets.
"If we knew a cold front was coming in, I'd have to go to a pool company and buy some sodium chloride," said Pensacola public works director Al Garza. "Every time we take precautions, (we) stockpile some masonry sands in different locations and end up not using it."
Then comes a month like February, when snow covers some ground in 49 states; two-thirds of the nation's land mass had snow cover Friday. While Garza was safe, snow fell just 40 miles north of Pensacola last week. After brief respite over the weekend, it was snowing again in Washington on Monday.
The consequences of failing to clear that snow can be deadly. Each year, more than 1,300 people are killed and more than 116,000 injured in vehicle crashes on snowy, slushy or icy pavement, according to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration. A storm that shuts down roads also closes the door of business, costing communities hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales taxes and revenue from income taxes.
"The benefits of being better prepared far outweigh the costs — because it costs so much when the Big One does hit," said Greg Cohen, executive director of the Roadway Safety Foundation, whose own street in Washington was still unplowed several days after the storms hit.
Then there's the politics of snow: Mayors know that failure to remove it can cost them their jobs.
Every mayor knows the story of Chicago's Michael Bilandic, the incumbent who lost in the 1979 Democratic primary after the city failed to clear streets fast enough after a storm. These days, voters embrace Mayor Richard M. Daley in part because the crews at Streets and Sanitation keeps the city in business every winter: The city's public schools haven't had a "snow day" in more than a decade.
"I got more calls from mayors during snow storms than at any other time," said Tom Eggum, a retired public works director in St. Paul. "It's probably because of what happened in Chicago."
While nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population lives in an area that gets some snow each year, there's a consensus Chicago gets rid of it as well as any place else. The city received an A grade for clearing its main streets from the Illinois Policy Institute following last week's storm, which broke the single-day snowfall record for February by dropping more than a foot of snow on the city.
A cool confidence flows through Richardson's downtown snow command center, where the city's deputy streets commissioner sleeps on a cot so he can work around the clock during a storm. He oversees a dozen dispatchers who comb through satellite data, watch giant screens showing up to 1,000 live camera shots of major streets, and call plow drivers to let them know they've missed a spot or need to drop their blade a little lower.
The drivers at the other end of a dispatcher's call are often under the most pressure, intently focused for 12 or more hours at a time on the road ahead, anxious about clipping curbs, cars or even pedestrians as they clear Chicago's 9,500 miles of street lanes. They're helped by a merciless towing operation that clears illegally parked cars to make room for the plows.
Cohen, the Roadway Safety Foundation chief, said Washington and other cities ill-prepared for snow should heed the lessons of this February winter and start preparing for the next Big One by building up that kind of snow-fighting force. But he doesn't have faith it will happen: As voters, people might remember street-clearing failures, but as taxpayers, they tend to forget as soon as the snow melts.
"People say it should be done," he said. "But then no one connects the dots that someone has to pay for it."