Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 30, 2010

Snow, expectations, and resilience

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Arnold Bogis on December 30, 2010

Philip’s post on the problems wrought by the recent blizzard raises an interesting question regarding resilience: how big does an event have to be for people to not expect to be saved by government and instead start relying on themselves?

George Packer of the New Yorker tackles this topic with his personal description of the reaction of some New Yorkers to the blizzard:

Twenty inches of snow isn’t a 7.5 earthquake or Category 4 hurricane. Unless it’s life-threatening, an emergency rarely lifts human beings above themselves. A snowstorm like this is bad enough to make people parochial and aggrieved, but not disastrous enough to make them generous and heroic. The stories of people trapped on subway trains all night, of hundreds of 911 calls going unanswered for hours, remained abstract, because we were in no actual danger. And so, instead, it seemed as if our block was being singled out for idiocy and neglect. The scene on the street brought my neighbors and me into a fraternity of usefulness and scorn: we locals did one another little favors—here’s some salt, thanks for shoveling my walk—and remarked on the folly of outsiders insisting on driving a car through such snow. The circle of inclusion was now the neighborhood—more narrowly, the block—but this bond wasn’t strong enough to prompt one of us to put an orange cone of warning at the bottom of the street, let alone to organize all of us into teams that could shovel out the whole block. Urban solidarity had a limit, and some quaint notion of deserving city services kept us waiting passively on the silent street for the plow that, by midday Tuesday, still hadn’t shown up.

When describing the earliest moments following a disaster, emergency managers never miss an opportunity to remind the public that there may be a period where they have to rely on themselves.  This is the theory behind having a plan and keeping several days of food and water, among other supplies.  Elected officials, however, find it more difficult to tell the public that they may not be there for them immediately following an event (and in the case of a certain New Jersey governor, that is literally true…). Added to the mix are those voices that insist that officials shouldn’t plan for true catastrophes but instead focus on the most likely threats.  This line of thinking supports the notion that the government should be prepared to handle common events, and the average citizen as taxpayer should expect immediate results.

Perhaps instead we should broaden our conception of even non-catastrophic events. Describing the efforts of a moving crew to dig themselves a path out of his block, Packer links expectations held by citizen of government and government of citizen:

They had plowed our street with shovels. Outsiders on the clock, they had done the city’s work—our work.

(h/t to Conor Friedersdorf at Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish)

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Comment by William R. Cumming

December 31, 2010 @ 1:40 am

This event bears serious study and suspect it [that study] will have some unusual conclusions.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 31, 2010 @ 9:03 am


Great find. Thanks for providing.

In the small town where I grew up — and in the Chicago of my twenty-somethings — when it snowed more than usual we did not wait for the city plows to show up to begin digging out.

Neighbors joined with neighbors to coordinate the process. In Chicago this included clearing a space for the eventual city plows to push and dump the snow.

I have lived on a Virginia mountain for over twenty years. Last year, for the first time, the neighbors paid for a bulldozer to clear the road (and then pay to restore the road). There was certainly no waiting for the government nor any expectation of government help.

Do most New Yorkers own a snow shovel? Should they? What are the responsibilties (even obligations) of individual citizens in a situation “bad enough to make people parochial and aggrieved, but not disastrous enough to make them generous and heroic”?

In small town Illinois, Chicago, and on the Virginia mountainside, we were not being generous, certainly not heroic. I always perceived we were being self-interested, but in a neighborly sort of way.

Comment by Christopher Tingus

December 31, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

In New York, Chicago and even in Charlotte, NC, people should own snow shovels and like here in Boston, if one does not clean his/her sidewalk within hours of storm’s end, a $50 fine is slapped on the property owner.

In Quincy, MA, snowplow drivers were getting paid by the inch of snowfall versus getting paid an hourly wage. We are all waiting to hear the results of this new pay per inch of snow. Innovative and we’ll see if practical.

More snow mid-month and everyone in Brooklyn needs a snow shovel. Put a Yankee logo on the shovel blade and they will not be able to keep them in stock, but my entrepreneurial business approach making profits while also assuring that all will have a shovel in hand – In fact, put a Red Sox lable with a big red stripe across and these too will sell….

This was merely a classic nor’easter and others will follow and until we have a real storm like the Great Blizzard of ’78 – (1978) that was a real blizzard!

Listen, we talk about people having resilience…and not depending on government. Give us all a break here on Main Street USA…government has made us so dependent and taken all the “change” from our pockets with brfoken promises as unemployment still hovers between 9-10% and housing is in the midst of its very own double dip as housing prices fell to their lowest.

What can one really expect from this Goldman Sachs administration or from either side of the Congressional aisle as all is about the politician himself and his agenda, certainly not ours! Distrust of the American government by its people has never been so apparent.

A vindictive person, the Wikileaks certainly depicted Hillary Clinton far differently that we characterized her. Shame on her!

To the sanitation folks in NYC, union or non-union, move the snow or you will be booted out of the job!

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