Friday, February 20, 2015

1745. Boston's Winter from Hell

By E. J. Graff, The New York Times, February 20, 2015

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — BY now you’ve seen the starkly beautiful shots of Boston buried under snow: the panoramic city under a white blanket; snowbanks so high they crest over parked cars; piercing icicles glinting for two full stories from gutters dammed with ice; coat-muffled people dwarfed by snow-walled corridors that once were sidewalks.

You may have seen the funny images as well: the man snowboarding down an all-but-empty major boulevard, pulled by his friend’s snowmobile; drunk men diving out of second-floor windows into six-foot snowbanks; windows that merely frame a wall of snow.

But for those of us living here, it’s not a pretty picture. We are being devastated by a slow-motion natural disaster of historic proportions. The disaster is eerily quiet. There are no floating bodies or vistas of destroyed homes. But there’s no denying that this is a catastrophe.

In just three weeks, between Jan. 27 and Feb. 15, we have had four epic blizzards — seven feet of precipitation over three weeks — which crushed roofs, burst gutters, destroyed roads and sidewalks, closed schools and businesses, shut down highways, crippled public transit and trapped people in their homes. The infamous Blizzard of 1978 brought around 27 inches of snow and shut down the region for a week. In less than a month, we’ve seen more than three times as much snow. The temperature has hovered between 5 and 25 degrees, so the snow and ice haven’t melted.

Decades of underinvestment and alleged mismanagement of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, known as the T, have meant that the nation’s oldest subway system has been partly or entirely halted for nearly a month. (The head of the agency abruptly resigned last week amid criticism.)

On Twitter, a satirical map of the transit system has circulated, with entire subway and bus lines scribbled out with a black line, marked with “LOL,” and “Don’t even.” Across the region, mile-long lines of people stand for an hour or more, freezing in bitter winds, waiting for shuttle buses that are supposed to replace the trains and trolleys. Some have given up and walked home.

For workers paid by the hour, the impossibility of getting to work means disaster, especially since high housing prices have pushed poor people out of the city to outlying communities like Brockton, Lawrence and beyond. When I commiserated with a checkout clerk at my grocery store yesterday — he’s been missing work when the buses break down or just don’t come — thinly veiled panic showed in his eyes. “People will be losing their houses,” he said.

Even if you have a car, you can’t rely on it. Not everyone is spending the hours needed to dig it out, over and over again. Driving is a game of blind chicken, because the intersections are blocked by 12-foot mounds of plowed snow.

All roads are narrowed by plowed snow walls and snowed-under cars and deep slush that just can’t get cleared fast enough. And once a car turns into a putatively two-way street that’s now just one lane, who’s going to back up into traffic to let the other through? Once you arrive, where do you park?

Think about how annoying it is when one or two of your usual routes is temporarily shut down. That’s happened to every street here — with no end in sight. Car insurance companies are swamped with accident calls. Walking is treacherous: The Massachusetts Avenue Bridge over the Charles River, a major pedestrian artery that links Boston and Cambridge, is still inches deep with snow, but you can’t reach the railings because they are lined with snowbanks plowed in from earlier blizzards.

Working parents are desperate: When classes were canceled, they had to stay home, leave their kids alone or scramble to find child care. Even when the schools are open, many parents can’t work a full day: You drop off the child, spend two hours driving to work and have to leave early to get the child before after-school programs close.

But everybody is desperate. We’re all having to spend time and money we don’t have on plowing, car and house repairs, and heating because of the record-low temperatures. People who survive by holding down additional part-time jobs have had to skip those extra shifts.

Businesses have been hammered: Who’s going out to eat, shop or see a movie? How can businesses manufacture and deliver products or arrange deals if their workers just can’t show up? Some companies can let people work from home occasionally, but not every day for a month. Snow-removal services, roofers, chiropractors, and auto mechanics and body shops will profit — but that can’t possibly make up for what is drained from nearly every other business and household.

And it’s devastating for state and local governments. The City of Boston has spent $35 million on snow removal, more than twice what it had budgeted. That doesn’t include Cambridge or any of the surrounding towns, or the state. It doesn’t include how much it will cost to repair the devastated roads, sidewalks and bridges that will have been worn away by snow, freezing, salt and rust. Incoming tax revenues will fall because business and personal incomes are down. The state government expects to see a drop of $30 million in the next months.

Sure, it’s not the same as an earthquake: The snow will melt, eventually. But that will bring more woes. The flooding will hurt the T, ruin roofs and basements and clog roads still more.

Where are the federal disaster funds, the presidential visit, Anderson Cooper interviewing victims, volunteers flying in, goods and services donated after hurricanes and tornadoes? The pictures may be pretty. But we need help, now.

It’s snowing as I write this. We’re expecting more, along with freezing rain, this weekend. And the misery won’t end even when it all melts.

E. J. Graff is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.

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