By Ben Goad - 01/21/14 07:53 PM EST
The threat of an approaching winter storm all but paralyzed Washington Tuesday, as most of the federal government closed for business long before the first flakes began to fall.
The shutdown did little to dispel Washington’s national image as a city of questionable grit — a reputation that is at least somewhat backed up by federal data pointing to an increase in snow days under the current administration.
But as the precipitation piled up, with the worst of the storm expected to hit in the early evening hours, a top federal official defended the decision, made following a 3 a.m. conference call involving hundreds of people.
“The concern at that point was, if we brought people into the city, we were going to have a very difficult time getting them out,” said Dean Hunter, director of emergency management for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). “I think it’s the right call.”
Ultimately, the decision was based on two guiding principals: the safety of the Washington area’s 300,000-person federal workforce and the need to maintain continuity of government, Hunter said.
As with any major storm system, the OPM activated its “situation room” to monitor the approaching weather, he said. The pre-dawn call that led to the closure decision included 46 entities, including area transportation departments, utilities, airports, school districts and law enforcement agencies.
“This isn’t a decision we’re making on our own,” Hunter said. “It’s something we’re making with the very people who are plowing the streets, and with emergency management officials and law enforcement.”
At issue in Tuesday’s decision were expectations that the brunt of the storm would coincide with rush hour, fears that 40-mile-an-hour winds would blow snow onto roadways and the total predicted snowfall of 6 to 10 inches, he said.
There have been more snow days in recent years, with government agencies closing more times in the last five years than it did in the 10 before that, OPM data shows.
The federal apparatus has been shuttered for weather 10 days since 2008, according to agency records. That includes 2010’s formidable “snowpocalypse,” which buried Washington in well over a foot of snow for a solid week, and last March’s somewhat anticlimactic “snowquester,” which fell short of snowfall predictions.
There were only seven closure days over the previous decade, according to the figures, which do not include shutdowns related to congressional budget fights or national days of mourning following the deaths of former Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
Recent years have also seen more days in which workers have been offered unscheduled leave. There were 33 such days since 2008, and 26 in the decade beginning in 1998, the data shows.
Policy shifts and technological advances have also allowed people to work from home more easily. As much as 47 percent of the federal workforce is able to work from home during “telework” days initiated in 2009, Hunter said.
If school and government closings are becoming more frequent, it’s not entirely clear why.
Hunter on Tuesday disputed the notion that the increase reflects a trend toward more frequent weather-related closures, arguing the numbers are skewed by the historic snowpocalypse.
“The winter of 2010 was really a historic winter season for the Baltimore-D.C. area,” Hunter said. “So I think if you back that out, I don’t see that in general we’re headed toward more closures.”
Either way, the uptick during the President Obama administration follows the president’s own chiding of the District’s mettle when it comes to winter weather.
Soon after taking office in 2009, Obama famously poked fun at the closing of his daughters’ school during an ice storm, joking they’d be allowed to play outside during recess under similar conditions in the first family’s hometown.
“We’re going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town,” he said.
Yet by noon on Tuesday, the White House had canceled Obama’s planned meeting with the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, as well as press secretary Jay Carney’s daily briefing with reporters. The White House announced just after noon that Obama would not be traveling from the mansion.
By then, the winter storm had started to bear down on the area. Schools shuttered, and scores of flights were grounded at the region’s airports by 9 a.m.
The federal order did not include emergency workers, and certain federal workers were required to telework. The Supreme Court remained open, with justices hearing arguments in a trio of cases.
Tuesday’s storm is expected to be followed by a cold front predicted to plunge temperatures into the teens later this week. A winter storm warning was in effect for the area until 11 p.m.
Congress is out of town on a scheduled recess period, but that didn’t stop some lawmakers from issuing snarky condemnations of the federal government’s collective work ethic.
“DC Snow day?” tweeted Rep. Sean Duffy, a Republican from Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District. “We call this Spring in #WI07.”
This story was updated at 7:53 p.m.