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Like many of her constituents, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh spent hours in severe gridlock last night, as her car inched its way up Connecticut Avenue NW to her home in Forest Hills. She didn’t get home until midnight.
“It was like a parking lot,” says Cheh, who’d been teaching a class at the George Washington University Law School, of her nearly two-hour commute. “I was kind of relaxed about it… put on some good music. But this morning, when I left [in] my car, I cut over on Tilden [Street NW] and saw all these cars that were abandoned on the median. And when I was going home last night, police had blocked off part of Porter.”
While idling on Connecticut Avenue NW, the councilmember says she got a bunch of texts, calls, and emails from residents who were similarly situated, asking what she could do about the hazardous driving conditions. Cheh, who chairs the D.C. Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, says that when she finally arrived home, she sent a note to Department of Public Works Acting Director Christopher Shorter—whose agency her committee oversees—inquiring what DPW had done to pre-treat D.C.’s roads. Shorter wrote back around 2 or 3 a.m., according to Cheh, saying the department had started to treat certain arterials and overpasses “earlier today.”
At a press conference this morning, and through a joint news release last night, DPW and the District Department of Transportation—its snow-handling partner—indicated the city had deployed services at 4 p.m. on Wednesday.
“They missed the boat,” Cheh says. “It was perfectly obvious they were not focused on this [and] not sufficiently prepared. Now, there may be explanations for that: Even the [National] Weather Service may have underestimated [last night’s snowfall]; everyone’s thinking about Friday. But they truly dropped the ball there—a lot of people were extremely inconvenienced.”
Told about Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s public apology for the “inadequate response” during the press event Thursday morning, Cheh responded: “I’m glad of that. You have to own up to this stuff instead of trying to make things look like you were ready. And to some extent, it was a surprise [in terms of] the amount and consequences of the snow.”
Looking to tomorrow and this weekend, when double-digit snowfall and wind speeds are expected by most current forecasts, Cheh says potential power outages could be the “main thing” that upset the District’s preparation efforts. Downed wires and trees would necessarily affect traffic movements—and possibly lights—Cheh explains, by forcing Pepco, Verizon, and other work-crews to remove dangers. (“It’s not something you can do in five minutes for sure,” she says.) But the fact that the storm is anticipated to hit over the weekend, when many people don’t have to work, is “a real break” for D.C., Cheh says. Additionally, the District is equipped with hundreds of trucks and personnel.
(A Pepco executive said this morning that the power company has more than 550 field personnel and an emergency center ready for this weekend’s storm, recommending that people call in outages and not get near downed wires.)
As for the city’s apparent decision not to issue fines to residents and businesses who fail to shovel their sidewalks—a policy Cheh spreadheaded a couple of years ago—the councilmember says she’ll push for the executive branch to enforce them for future storms. The intent of those fines ($25 and $150 per offense for residents and businesses, respectively), Cheh says, is to keep public right-of-way clear and residents safe. She adds that there was a year-long “lead-in period” for the District to figure out how to implement the statutes and alert residents after these were enacted.
“It’s like anything else: You gotta clean your gutters, keep public ways clear,” Cheh explains. “It’s something for the community so people can actually walk and go get that bus if they need to catch one. We don’t want to be fastidious; we just want to make sure people aren’t slipping on sidewalks.”
Is Cheh herself prepared for the blizzard?
“I got my flashlights,” she says.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery