Not bad for a small state

Feb 10, 2013

The neighborhood we call Rhode Island was clobbered by the giant n’oreaster that began as flurries Friday morning and cascaded into a blizzard with echoes of 1978, leaving our corner of  New England buried under two feet or more of fluffy, plump white drifts.

The storm mixed menace, beauty, inconvenience and biting chill. Thousands of us shivered through Friday and Saturday night in houses bereft of electricity as gusts whipped, thermostats plunged and down parkas were our pajamas. .

It was a reminder that for all of our 21st century technology and gadgets, we humans are small indeed; no match for the vagaries of nature. We all know our state is tiny,  too: the nation’s smallest.

Rhode Island’s cozy, claustrophobic culture is more often bane than advantage. Yet the past three days shows that sometimes our size is an asset. In our state, the person who lives across the street cares whether you are sick or well, alive or dead. He knows what your daughter is like; he dated her before he married another neighbor’s cousin. When your need another guy to help coax it out of snow bank, he's there.

Over the years, the histrionics and clichés of RI  television reporters hyping weather events has evoked mordant laughter from many of us. As if these people were Chicken Littles warning of falling skies. This time, the work of these snow-pelted folks in their bright logo jackets, the redundant anchorman cancelation reports and the serious-faced state officials with their news conferences and interminable media updates  performed a vital public service.

Any sober person watching Channel 12’s Sean Daly struggling to remain vertical while hanging over Route 95 as the snow stung his face and the gales churned Friday evening probably got the hint:  Leave your car in the driveway, stay home and ride it out.

Rhode Island survived as well, or even better, than our neighbors. Our roads were pretty clear, given the snowfall. National Grid did about as well as could be expected, given the breadth of the electricity failures. Ditto for the oft-maligned state Department of Transportation, which managed to keep most main state roads and highways passable. By Sunday morning, such major routes as 195 and 95 were as bare as a June morning.

Rhode Islanders love to skewer our politicians, but such officials as Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian and Cranston Mayor Alan Fung all did a decent job. Warming shelters were open, plows were out, emergency vehicles and state police were on duty. They counseled patience. For the most part, Rhode Islanders complied.

Things went much more smoothly than during the iconic Blizzard of 1978, which closed the state for a week.  Some of this was sheer luck: the storm came in on a weekend, not on a Monday afternoon. Weather forecasting is a less precarious business than it was 35 years ago. The accuracy of  forecasts was far better this time around.

On an existential level, the 78 Blizzard has been so embedded in the New England psyche that when there is evidence of  a snow-driven encore, even the most skeptical among us take a deep breath.

The Chafee Administration, along with governors in Massachusetts and Connecticut, made the smart decision to close major highways Friday to non-essential travel, thus avoiding the snow-snarled abandoned vehicle parking lots that stalled the clean up of highways in 1978.

It was endearing to see Chafee helping to push a car out of a drift. It was also a symbol  of the many thousands of such gestures repeated across the state by Rhode Islanders who helped start each other start  cars, shoveled the steps of elderly neighbors and made sure that people who needed help got it. Even our notoriously ill-tempered drivers calmed down; on Saturday at 6 p.m. most traffic lights in the east side of Narragansett Bay were out, but motorists were cautious and polite.

All in all, it was a good weekend for state and local officials. And, perhaps, a wake-up call for the relentless anti-government crowd. Overall, our elected officials and first responders performed their jobs well in the face of a snow storm that could have been much worse in terms of lives lost and injuries sustained.