It Snows in Winter?

Morgan O'Rourke


February 1, 2011

When I used to work as a supermarket clerk, the most chaotic time was unquestionably when snow was in the forecast. The store would be packed with frenzied shoppers buying just about anything they could get their hands on as if this snowstorm was going to trap them in their homes for the rest of their lives. Mind you this was Long Island, New York, where, while we do get our share of snow, it usually won't inconvenience anyone for more than a day or two. I understood the desire to pick up a few staples, but I could never figure out why people would choose to stock up on 20-packs of toilet paper, enough canned goods to fill a bomb shelter or multiple gallons of milk that they would never be able to drink before the expiration date no matter the weather.

While I can appreciate practicing a little personal risk management, this was knee-jerk panic. But more than that, it always seemed like these people were shocked to discover that—surprise—it actually snows in winter. Instead, they acted like fearful cavemen who couldn't understand why this cold white stuff was falling from the heavens. Part of me wondered if my town had collectively eaten too many paint chips, but the failure to anticipate the obvious, particularly when it comes to winter weather, is evidently widespread.

This winter alone, airports from London to New York have been shut down due to severe snowstorms. And while delays from bad weather are inevitable, the scope and duration of these delays has made many people question the preparedness of those in charge.

For instance, after a modest December snowfall forced a lengthy shutdown of London's Heathrow Airport, causing severe disruption to air travel throughout Western Europe, the British Department for Transport criticized the airport's operator, BAA, and suggested that they had underestimated the resources needed to keep runways open. They even proposed new legislation that would allow officials to fine airport operators if they were unable to provide a minimum level of service during bad weather.

"Because airports are ultimately strategic infrastructure, we probably need to have as a very last resort some powers to intervene in the way we don't have at the moment," said Transport Secretary Philip Hammond in an interview with the UK's Sunday Times.

BAA's CEO was so chastened that he announced he would forgo his bonus for the year—a small consolation for frustrated passengers forced to spend their Christmas  holidays in an airport.

In the United States, a post-Christmas blizzard in the Northeast stranded countless air and ground travelers and temporarily shut down air traffic into and out of all three New York-area airports, forcing the cancellation of more than 6,000 flights. According to some estimates, the disruption could wind up costing the airlines as much as $150 million.

Also in New York City, critics blasted Mayor Michael Bloomberg for ignoring storm warnings and not marshalling sufficient resources to remove the more than 20 inches of snow that fell on city streets. Many residents, including, ironically, the city's Sanitation Commissioner, waited for days after the storm for their streets to finally be plowed and their cars freed. Response to the storm was so slow that officials were called in to investigate reports that sanitation crews deliberately delayed snow removal efforts in protest to department budget cuts earlier in the year. Beleaguered sanitation workers countered that faulty equipment and the lack of manpower were the real problem.

Many factors, both preventable and unpreventable, likely contributed to these incidents of snow-related chaos. But a commonality in these cases is the lack of preparedness for a risk that is easily foreseeable. Snowstorms are predictable annual occurrences, not unexpected disasters. That airports or municipalities only seem to consider contingency plans after the fact is a failure of basic risk management principles. Sure, economic realities will force tough decisions and uncomfortable belt-tightening, but that doesn't mean that the risks have magically disappeared and can therefore be ignored. Risk doesn't care about your budget cuts.

I suppose it is just human nature though. Denial is a much easier strategy in times of trouble. The problem is that denial really isn't much of a shield when the cold reality comes calling. And by then the supermarket will probably be out of milk.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)