They shut down the schools and the government for what turned out in much of the area to be light rain and a bit of a breeze.
But when “they” — beleaguered bureaucrats, politicians and educators — made that choice in the small of the night, all the experts were telling them that a big storm with an even bigger name was bearing down on the Washington region, preparing to snarl roads, snuff out power and cause all manner of chaos.
The pressure was enormous: Whether they called it Snowquester or Winter Storm Saturn, the nonstop media storm-mongering had raised expectations to supermarket-shelf-clearing levels. At 11 p.m. Tuesday, the dean of Washington weather forecasters, ABC Channel 7’s Bob Ryan, tweeted, “If any school in area is open tomorrow, somebody is nuts.”
Thirteen hours later, Ryan backtracked: “The strong March sun and warm ground yesterday taking a toll on snow . . . Exact rain-snow line always drives us nuts.”
But by that time, every major school system in the region had shut down, as had the federal and most local governments and courts. Did they pull the plug too early? Did they listen to the wrong experts? Did they act out of a surplus of bureaucratic caution, eager to avoid blame if they sent workers and schoolchildren into a hellacious storm?
All they knew for certain was that no matter what they did, the potential for outrage was rich: Taxpayers might be miffed that governments closed and lost a day of productivity for a storm that fizzled. Conversely, parents and commuters might be equally outraged if schools had opened only to shut down early or if governments had made workers come in and then sent them home into a traffic mess of majestic proportions.
The intense build-up to this storm, on TV and on weather blogs and Web sites, had officials eager to make a decision Tuesday evening. In Fairfax County, Jeffrey Platenberg, the school system’s assistant superintendent for transportation and facilities, planned to issue his yea or nay on canceling school by 7 p.m. But all afternoon Tuesday, the contrast between the forecasts and the facts outside his window gave him second thoughts.
“It was above 50 degrees outside at 1700 hours, with road temperatures above 60 and bridges above 50,” he said. He put off his decision.
Platenberg consulted with transportation and emergency management officials and the National Weather Service. Then he got up at 3 a.m. and went out in his front-wheel-drive sedan.
“It doesn’t handle the snow very well, so it gives me a good gauge for how difficult the drive may be,” he said.
Then, gut check time. At 4:12 a.m., just in time to keep the system’s 1,200 buses from heading out onto the roads, he closed the schools. “You can’t call them back,” he said. “That’s like turning around the Queen Mary.” The deciding factor was the idea of young, inexperienced high school drivers out on frozen stuff.
The cascading series of decisions to close began Tuesday night with a conference call at 9 gathering government and school leaders. The advice from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments was to be cautious, said Ron Kirby, the council’s transportation planning director.
“Everything went up to a new level of caution after the Jan. 26, 2011, storm,” Kirby said. That big thundersnow paralyzed the region as the federal government sent workers home into the brunt of a rush-hour storm. Since then, chastened officials have erred on the side of shutting down ahead of any significant snow.
About 11 p.m., dire forecasts — one TV station said Northwest Washington could see up to a foot of snow — and impending bedtimes led first school systems and then governments to announce closings.
D.C. schools were the first system inside the Capital Beltway to shut down. Others soon followed.
“We made our decisions based on, unfortunately, faulty weather predictions,” said Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). “You can’t really blame the government officials for using the data the scientists gave them.”
Ribiero said media forecasts “did tend to hype it up a little bit, but what we look at is the data. We have to take that as valid.”
Those forecasts were plain wrong. “This was the biggest bust in the history of the Capital Weather Gang,” said The Washington Post’s chief meteorologist, Jason Samenow. He said the major mistake was to accept computer models that said the amount of moisture in the storm would make up for the warmth of the air below.
Every forecaster in town overestimated the storm; at 3 a.m., the Weather Service still predicted eight to 10 inches of snow for the District.
In Prince William County, one of the first systems to close, transportation director Ed Bishop said his boss, Superintendent Steven Walts, hates to shut down based only on forecasts.