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Jewish World Review March 9, 2001 / 14 Adar, 5761

Dale McFeatters

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Consumer Reports

Another snow job in the nation's capital -- THE FURTHER we get from actual contact with the weather, the more hysterical we get about it.

Most of us don't have any significant involuntary contact with the weather. In winter, the average desk jockey drives from a heated house in a heated car to a heated office building; as a practical matter, it makes little difference what the weather outside is doing.

If weather truly mattered, places like Houston, central Florida and the desert Southwest would be largely uninhabited. Instead, there is air-conditioning, making it unnecessary to go outside into the, uh, weather.

In the 19th century, weather mattered. Facing a 50-yard sprint to the outhouse on a subzero night, you bet it mattered. Houses were difficult to heat. Somebody had to chop the wood or make sure the coal cellar was full. There was no Gore-Tex or Thinsulate or space-age long johns; there was wool, wool and more wool. Yet old-time newspaper accounts do not show a great preoccupation with weather. These people knew what they were getting into and still settled Buffalo.

The difference is television. Local TV has found that fanning the viewers into a panic over the weather - "Is a monster tidal wave headed our way? We'll have the full story at 11" - is good for ratings. And, face it, the rugged race of indoorsmen we've become likes it.

Here in Washington, D.C., we have a station that boasts "StormCenter 4." Since the capital's weather is more often mild than not, an accurate description of their weather operation would be "NiceDayCenter 4."

The stations boast about their "digital Doppler radar," whose function seems to be to generate a mesmerizing pattern on a map that repeats itself over and over, like a flat panel lava lamp. One station boasts that its radar is so precise that it can tell you what the weather is doing on your block, which you could find out for yourself if you were not inside watching television.

The capital's winters tend to be gray and monotonous, so the TV forecasters like to spice it up with chilling tales about the possibility of "virga." Virga, it turns out, is snow or rain that evaporates before it hits the ground, so you wouldn't really know or care how badly it virga-ed.

Days that are just sort of blah are described as prone to a "wintry mix" - snow, sleet, freezing rain or none of the above.

When the temperatures aren't very inspiring, the forecasters like to invoke something called the "wind-chill factor" on remote Appalachian mountaintops. "Here in town it's only 33 but for the folks out on Keyser's Ridge it's only 10 degrees with the wind chill." The forecaster likes to add, because we viewers can be pretty thick at times, "And that's cold!"

Here in the Northeast, we had four days of warnings about a Canadian high-pressure mass of what the forecasters insist on calling "arctic air" would collide with a huge, wet low-pressure "system" from the Carolinas. The "storm of the decade" - kind of a weak honor considering the decade was barely two months old - would dump 1 to 2 feet of snow on our sorry heads.

The capital of the free world reacted with its usual blind panic and immediately formed itself into protective traffic jams. Washington does not handle the threat of snow, let alone snow itself, well. The Washington Post ran a reader contest for inside Washington jokes. The winner was:

How did the GS-1 (the most junior government employee) shut down the federal government?

He went into a crowded cafeteria and shouted, "Snowflake!"

The huge storm, of course, missed us, and Philadelphia and New York City, hammering instead New England and Upstate New York. In the immediate relief at having dodged the bullet, we shamefully and cravenly told ourselves, "Well, they're used to it up there. They know how to deal with it."

Once we were absolutely sure we were safe, that the storm would not, as one forecaster suggested, turn around and come back, many felt betrayed. We had been promised a natural disaster and somebody had double-crossed us.

The local weather forecasters could have apologized. Offering to return all the toilet paper, milk and kitty litter for store credit would have been nice. But no. Instead, one forecaster was saying, "More snow in our forecast? Another storm may be here by the weekend. I'll tell you about it when we come back." And stupid us will be waiting.

Comment on Dale McFeatters' column by clicking here.


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