Friday, February 4, 2011

Whether the Weather Holds

In a way, I feel sorry for them.

All of the people who planned so hard and so long for this Super Bowl week here in Arlington, Texas.

For about two years, public agencies on the local, state, and national levels have been pouring over maps, spreadsheets, and statistics. Private businesses have been submitting bids and stocking up. One cross-town freeway has been practically re-built, coach buses and limousines have been put on order, and several new hotels erected. First responders have drilled, street lights have been recalibrated, and a new passenger terminal constructed at our municipal airport.

We all dodged a bullet - maybe even literally - when the Chicago Bears lost to Green Bay, ensuring the President wouldn't make an impromptu appearance at the big game.

But for people who believe in luck, it certainly seemed to run out this past Monday night, when an ice storm slammed through town. Tuesday morning, streets were varnished with up to three inches of frozen water. And temperatures were in the teens. All day. For several days.

Winter is an Unpredictable Visitor

Up North, where this type of weather can be tricky but hardly paralyzing, salt and dirt would be spread, the ice plowed away, and life would go on. But down here in what native Texans like to call the South, we have never bothered to pay for being prepared for winter weather. Politicians and taxpayers alike shrug and say this kind of thing happens so infrequently, it's not cost effective to budget for it. And if, indeed, these winter storms were infrequent, they'd be right.

So I guess it all depends on your definition of "infrequent." Last year, we received a whopping nine inches of snow in Arlington, and up to a foot in parts of suburban north Dallas. Fortunately, we weren't in the deep freeze for days, but it took forever for all the snow to finally disappear. Granted, we broke all sorts of records last year in terms of snowfall, but "winter mix events" have been striking our stretch of the Lone Star State for more winters than not. And each time they do, businesses shut down, traffic chokes up, schools close, and general productivity craters.

Not that Arlington and our region weren't prepared this year. Knowing how fickle February weather can be in north Texas, the state's transportation department brought in snowplows from Amarillo, in the northernmost corner of Texas, where winter snow is common. Extra inventories of sand and magnesium chloride to chemically treat ice-slicked roadways were on standby. If we would have coasted through this week with unseasonable - yet entirely possible - 70-degree weather, it would have been a huge expense down the drain. But, alas, we weren't prepared enough.

So, for the past several days, schools have been closed, businesses have either shut down or run reduced schedules, and many people around the region have simply hunkered down in their homes to wait out the frigid mess. On Wednesday, rolling blackouts sparked by equipment failures in an electric substation quickly elicited the ire of numerous utility customers, some of whom endured up to six hours without power in twelve degree weather.

One Long, Long, Week

Yesterday, things began looking up, as Tuesday's ice continued to evaporate in the steady wind. An increase in traffic on area freeways seemed to indicate some employees were trying to put in at least a few hours at the office, even though schools remained closed.

Then this morning, we all woke up to at least three inches of fluffy snow. Which in and of itself, probably would not have been too much of a problem. Except that enough wide swaths of ice and patches of frozen slush remained hidden under the snow, enough to sabotage the morning commute and keep schools closed for an exceptionally rare four days in a row.

Both of our major airports were forced to shut down until their runways were plowed once again, meaning that thousands of Super Bowl fans flying into town for the weekend suffered massive flight delays.

And to top it off, as the sun came out this afternoon, sheets of ice started sliding off of the steeply-pitched curves of the Cowboys Stadium roof here in Arlington, injuring six people on the ground who were making final preparations for Sunday's game. Several of the injured workers were taken to local hospitals, with at least one in serious condition.

North Texas Sure Ain't Florida

Haven't Americans become accustomed to having the Super Bowl in a part of the country where sun and balmy temperatures naturally set a festive, carefree tone for the most over-hyped event in sportsdom? It's not hard to understand the allure of sun-kissed beaches and tropical plants welcoming winter-weary football fans eager to forget the snowy cold as they head into the home stretch of blizzard season.

When they were pitching Arlington to the NFL as an ideal location to host the Super Bowl, local officials probably gushed too much about the atypical 70-degree weather we sometimes enjoy at this time of the year. Many of us transplants lured to north Texas were spun a tale of sun without the surf; Texas winters as a true escape from the frigid fury of the Yankee hinterland.

True, I wore shorts and a t-shirt last Saturday while doing yard work, but those of us who've lived here a while know not to expect such pampering by our climate. Not until mid-March at the earliest. That's still plenty early compared to places like Michigan and Vermont, but not early enough for something like the Super Bowl.

So on the one hand, I don't feel very sorry for our local tourism and business relocation executives who, in light of this unfortunate weather, can't avoid having egg on their face this week. But if the NFL was expecting a guarantee of balmy bliss, then they should have done their own homework about the capricious weather here.

Silver Lining in the Storm

If the worst of winter's fury hadn't barreled on through, and we had our typical low-50's temperatures with some seasonably mellow sunshine this week, none of our Super Bowl guests would have had a clue about how nasty the weather can get here in the wintertime. All of the many parties, on-site media shows, NFL charity fundraisers, travel arrangements, and photo ops would have gone off without a hitch, since even with the worst-case-scenario precipitation and temperatures, no other problems have been reported. In fact, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell expressed his amazement yesterday at how well everything has gone this week in spite of all the ice and sub-freezing cold.

Maybe that will be enough to win the Super Bowl again for 2016, which has been the goal of many local organizers of this year's event. But Goodell spoke before today's snow, and this afternoon's accident at the stadium in which six workers were injured.

In Florida or Southern California, you just don't have problems like we've had here this week. In Miami, the only wind is a tropical breeze off of a sparkling ocean. In Los Angeles, the only precipitation comes from movie stars crying from being passed over for an Oscar nomination. Even in Houston, the worst weather anomalies come from its suffocating humidity.

So maybe Arlington winning another chance to host the Super Bowl is something about which we need to be more realistic. After all, when word leaked out that Cowboys Stadium was exempt from the rolling blackouts plaguing every other business and neighborhood on Wednesday, the vitriol unleashed against the NFL by irate, frozen utility customers was about as nasty as the weather. Jones has never enjoyed widespread popularity - or even apathy - here in town, not since one of his first acts as the team's new owner was to fire the legendary Tom Landry.

And officials kept promising everybody here that the Super Bowl would be worth $600 million in new business and sales tax revenue for north Texas. That fantastic-sounding number kept getting dangled in front of state officials who had to pony up funds for widening freeways and building new exit ramps servicing Cowboys Stadium. Anybody who's still expecting a $600 million windfall this week, however, must have been hit by that avalanche that fell from the stadium's roof.

No, at first glance, this week has not been one of Arlington's best. But, if you think about it, and dig a little deeper, all of the planning and preparation that went into getting ready for this week should be worth something, shouldn't it? By all accounts, the level of inter-agency and cross-municipal cooperation has been a first for this region. Never before have so many cities with some of the biggest swaggers in the state of Texas put aside their differences to work for one common goal. Even though the Super Bowl will be played here in Arlington, Dallas got to host most of the NFL's week-long tourist traps leading up to the game; Fort Worth became a tourism magnet, and other suburban cities have hosted events and been able to share some of the spotlight.

Officials from all across north Texas have already said they look forward to leveraging their new-found working relationships with their local peers in future endeavors. That has been a remarkable milestone for a region that can't agree on mass transit and other area-wide initiatives for which urban areas of lesser size in other states have already partnered.

Tomorrow, our temperature should clear the freezing mark for the first time since Monday night. They're predicting a high of only 39, but hey; that's a start. When you watch the game live from Arlington on Sunday night, maybe you'll hardly see any snow when they televise live shots of the area.

Then, too, some forecasters say a chance of snow might be added to the forecast for Sunday evening, as another cold front flirts with north Texas.

And if that prediction does come to pass, you can count on something else, sure as shootin'.

You'll be able to hear Jerry Jones wailing plain as day from his luxury suite.

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