Friday, December 4, 2009
Hard to believe, but I'm watching the snow come down in Houston. It's official:
Houston this morning broke a record with the earliest snowfall ever recorded in the city's history.
Texas is a big state (just ask a Texan) and snow is fairly common in some areas--the northernmost part of the state is a stone's throw (over the Oklahoma panhandle) from Colorado. But such weather is pretty rare in Houston. My law school has closed for the day and rescheduled tonight's exams.
I grew up in upstate New York, where the average January temperature is 22 F (compared to Houston's 55 F); average winter snowfall was 64" (compared to Houston's < 0.05"). Tennessee, where I lived for about eight years as an adult, is just far enough north to get some decent snowstorms each winter, but overall it has a much warmer, and shorter, winter. Yet it seemed that in Tennessee the authorities were constantly cancelling school and shutting the city down. Often the schools had to extend their year to make up for all of the snow days. In New York we hardly ever lost a day of school due to snow; perhaps 0-2 per year. Even a 12-inch snowfall was not a problem, while in Tennessee they would preemptively close for a forecast of snow.
Fellow northern transplants and I would snicker at all this. You call this a snowstorm? I chalked up the different approaches to the hardiness of our yankee constitutions. But eventually I think I figured out what might be the biggest factor in the different regional reactions, and it's a land use & local government issue. Albany County's snow removal budget for supplies alone (salt, fuel) is $1,217,500. This doesn't include the operating costs for personnel, nor the capital outlays for the equipment; a new snow plow can cost a city around $200,000. Chicago's total snow removal budget is $17 million.
So while these types of expenditures are necessary in northern cities, it wouldn't make sense in warmer climes to purchase and maintain the equipment, supplies, and personnel necessary for snow removal capability. In Houston a freak storm like today's doesn't happen often enough to remotely justify the expense. It becomes a more difficult question for places in the latitudinal middle, like Tennessee and Kentucky. One could measure the economic impact of lost school and work days and business in the area, and compare it to the costs of snow removal. But even that would still need to make some predictive assumptions based on variance from year to year. (Besides, why invest in a snow plow when Georgia will soon be underwater due to global warming?)
Assuming rational actors, one would think we could draw lines between the places where it is more efficient as a matter of municipal policy to do snow removal, and those where it is more efficient to simply ride out the storms as they come. Obviously there are a lot of other factors for planners in making this decision, including geography, the urban/suburban/rural character of the place, and other unique factors. Plus there are the politics of snow removal (a blizzard is said to have altered the outcome of Chicago's mayoral primary in 1979).
But obviously it would never make sense on the Gulf Coast, so we'll just hunker down as we watch the freak snowfall today (my three-year-old has no idea what this stuff is). But don't feel bad for me-- it will be back up to 74 F by Tuesday.
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