The blizzard of 2016 that buried Washington, D. C., and New York City teaches us again that our powerful society is still no match for the power of nature – the ultimate hacker of our orderly lives.
To be immobilized in such a storm is an unforgettable lesson, one that the people of the region will long remember.
I know our family will always remember our days in Washington sometime in the early 1980s when about 20 inches of snow stranded us there. I was in D.C. for a conference and Gretchen and our children Jennifer and Jeff, who were 11 and 9, respectively at the time, came along for what was to be a few days of touring the city.
While I was in meetings, Gretchen and the children visited the Smithsonian museums and, later in the day, walked through snow back to the hotel. Proving to be good Wisconsinites, they pushed a stuck car out of a snowbank on the way. The driver was grateful, Gretchen said.
By bedtime, the streets were quiet. Gretchen and I left the Washington Hotel, where we stayed, and walked past the White House a short distance away where a single police squad car was keeping watch, cruising slowly around Lafayette Park. Those were the days before barricades and other fortifications of the post-9/11 world. Somewhere in the distance an alarm was sounding, but there was no sound of emergency vehicles responding.
The next morning we awoke to a silent city. We hurried out to tour the museums, most of which, we found, were closed, their entrances buried in snow. There were no vehicles on the snow-choked streets and few pedestrians.
I had rubbers for my shoes, which I often carried when I traveled. Gretchen and Jennifer had packed boots, but Jeff was in sneakers, so he rode on my shoulders as we hiked in snow up the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, which was closed. We skirted the Capitol grounds, tromping through the deep snow, and headed down the Mall looking for any place where we could dry our feet and warm up.
At the Hirshorn Museum, a few men with shovels were just starting to clear the steps, pausing with each shovelful to wonder where to put it on the wide expanse. The sculpture garden was open and the snow piled high on each piece added an uncommon dimension to each sculpture.
Our search for an open door found success at the Washington Monument where, after hiking the stairs to the top, we could view the stitches of foot paths through the snow on the mall. Someone had tromped a peace symbol just to the left of the long shadow of the memorial.
We took one of the paths to the Vietnam Memorial, a black slash through the white landscape. The warming temperature sent a few drops of melted snow sliding like tears across the face of the reflective black granite. In hushed voices, we explained to the children that each of the names was someone who had been killed in the war that had ended only a few years before our visit.
We marched on to the Lincoln Memorial where the great Lincoln statue looked out over a landscape as white as the marble of the memorial.
Eventually we ended our day in one of the museums that had opened, but it was the next morning that furnished the most enduring memory of the visit. We decided to look for a lower-cost breakfast and wound up at a McDonald’s a few blocks from the hotel. We shared the crowded restaurant with dozens of homeless men – a firsthand introduction for our children to a harsh reality of vulnerability of the homeless in extreme weather events then and now.
Extreme weather events, we are told by the climate scientists, will become more common. More memories for us in the future, and not all of them good.