Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Snow Days

An unexpected snowstorm hits the city in the middle of a workday. The roads get hopelessly clogged and I'm lucky to get home--many others just abandoned their cars, or slept in them. I'm talking about Valentine's Day, February 14, 1990 in Chicago. But the same story hit Atlanta yesterday. One big difference--Georgia Tech is closed today and tomorrow because the city can't handle the ice. The University of Chicago was open on February 15th. 

When these events happen, people wonder about the planning. Was it wise for all schools and businesses to shut down about the same time, early yesterday afternoon? Lots of blame to go around (and having CNN based in Atlanta guarantees coverage) but it is not clear that any plan would have done much better--how do you get millions of people safely home with dangerous roads and a limited public transit system? One of these times you wish P = NP and you can just find the right algorithm. One of the issues is that freak mid-day snowstorms don't happen that often, the last major one in Atlanta was 1982.

Meanwhile back in Chicago, schools were closed earlier this week, not for snow but for cold. But it was that cold on a regular basis back in the 90's. Global warming has changed expectations, as so brilliantly illustrated in this xkcd


  1. I was at the AMS meeting in Atlanta in January 1988. There was a complexity theory session, and IIRC a tutorial that Ron Book ran. I can remember Steve Mahaney passing around a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles: "people who can't write definitions," and "people who can't prove theorems," which various folks from the Structures community annotated with great enthusiasm. You all know who you are ;-).

    During the meeting, Atlanta got about 5" of the strangest snow I'd ever seen: the texture was more like hail than snow, and it was like walking through sand. It didn't pack, at all. The whole city pretty much ground to a halt, and when the restaurants in the Peachtree Center began to close, "because of the weather," despite large captive audiences and a staff that was already there, some of our mutual friends started to get really nervous. If I'm calling correctly, Eric Allender was able to direct us to food.

    At the time, I think the entire snow removal capacity of the State of Georgia consisted of a single Ford Ranger with a 6" blade. I'm quite certain that they had nothing like the locomotive sized IDOT plows we have hereabouts. Kim and I left the meeting a couple days later, driving down I-75 to visit my folks who lived in Clearwater, listening to the radio, which claimed that the expressway had been closed for 3 days. We didn't have much trouble, although the weather had done a nice job sorting the cars: those with Michigan plates were on the road, those with Georgia plates were in the ditch. Trucks too.

    The University of Chicago was closed this year one day due to weather, on January 6th. It was the first day of classes for Winter Quarter, and temperatures stayed comfortably below -10 F all day. But it wasn't the temperature per se that was the issue, it was the effect of the temperature on students traveling to campus. Witness Monday and Tuesday of this week, with temperatures again in the negative teens. The University stayed open.


  2. Politico has an excellent article about the long-term structural problems with Atlanta that contributed to this mess:

  3. Maybe kids were just tougher in your day. They probably didn't need car seats or even seat belts. Didn't kids ride in the back of station wagons without even having seats?