I understand why Gov. Deval Patrick received big accolades for his decisive statewide travel ban during last week’s bizzard (or snowstorm, depending on where in the state you found yourself at the time).
I understand why plaudits came from legions of state and local politicians, with the most enthusiastic praise coming from fellow Democrats. I understand why state public safety and highway department officials, among other civil servants, liked the idea of the ban. I understand why certain industry segments like utility companies and, perhaps most of all, the media (whose members were notably exempt from the ban) are supportive of the governor’s decision.
I also understand why many Massachusetts residents—maybe even a majority of them—appreciated the governor’s move to shut down travel across the state before the snow did.
What I don’t understand is why the governor and his closest advisers on weather-related public safety matters didn’t bother to look at a weather map. Had they simply consulted—I don’t know; weather.com?—wouldn’t they have thought it OK to exempt the western counties of Massachusetts from such a ban? Wouldn’t they have known that a foot of snow in the Berkshires is a blessing, not a crisis?
As many commentators noted last week in media reports that piled up faster than the falling snow, Patrick’s ban can be favorably compared to the last statewide travel ban, issued by former Gov. Michael Dukakis during the blizzard of 1978. Dukakis issued the ban late in the going, and thousands of motorists were stranded on the highways in and around Boston. People died.
Patrick’s cocksure decision also plays in contrast to the deplorable performance of the government in recent catastrophes in other parts of the country, most notably the Bush administration’s display of ineptitude during Hurricane Katrina.
Still, even if it made sense for two-thirds of the state, saving lives and speeding recovery efforts, the governor’s decision is problematic on a number of levels. In my view, it sets a precedent that, as government officials find themselves confronted by scary weather forecasts in the future, will make it easier to issue a ban or impose other draconian measures.
Among residents and business owners in the Berkshires, Patrick’s ban caused some hard feelings. At the Berkshire Eagle website and in the Western Mass. blogosphere in general, people bashed the decision and particularly the penalties Patrick threatened to impose on scofflaws. The fact that few if any citations were handed down wasn’t the point to a great many writers; the problem lay in Patrick’s inability to recognize regional differences both in storm patterns and in attitudes and preparedness for rough weather.
Meanwhile, local police departments in Franklin and Berkshire Counties were left with phones jammed by residents calling to ask if they really had to heed the ban with only an inch of fluff on the ground.
“A lot of the local departments were inundated with calls about the ban,” Sgt. David Rice of the Greenfield Police Department told me. The Greenfield police, Rice said, responded to more than 300 incidents during the storm but issued no citations to motorists driving in violation of the ban.
For businesses that count on snow and tourists, the ban was particularly painful. Berkshire East in Charlemont, like other ski resorts in Massachusetts, was forced to close early on Friday, when only a few flakes were falling. On Saturday, the resort opened under clear skies with a foot of untouched powder on its slopes and nearly no skiers. While Patrick lifted the ban at 1 p.m., three hours before he lifted it across the whole state, the economic damage was done. Rather than receive its usual boost from a snowstorm, Berkshire East lost tens of thousands of dollars.
The governor isn’t alone in exhibiting a kind of weather phobia that seems to grow worse each year. The news media has recognized that weather reporting is cheap, that it drives up the ratings. Meanwhile, the mere mention of snow or cold temperatures (nowadays, TV meteorologists toss around words like “frigid” when talking about temperatures in the 20s) is enough to keep people hunkered down at home. While plow truck drivers may like seeing the roads empty as they dig us out after each storm, for the businesses that depend on a steady flow of traffic, the current trend is troubling.
For ski areas in Massachusetts, as well as all the smaller businesses that grow in their shadows, last week’s storm should have been a boon. Instead, it was a bust. As Jon Schaefer, general manager at Berkshire East, points out, those areas make a significant contribution to the local economy—“we ski as many people here in this state as they do in all the resorts of Maine,” he says—and are increasingly being hurt by warming temperatures and accompanying snow droughts.
When policymakers throw additional hurdles in their way, it hurts.
“Trouble is,” Schaefer says, “you never get those days back again.”•