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Snow covers Rockefeller Center in New York City on January 3 thanks to a frigid nor'easter.


Who Decides to Shut Down a City for a Snowstorm?

There's no hard-and-fast rule for when a city shuts down due to snow.

The first major North American snowstorm of 2014 is now behind us. Blankets of snow are on the ground, many offices are closed until Monday, and city governments are busy clearing the roads for the weekend.

Boston received more snow than New York City or Washington, D.C.—the storm dumped over a foot (0.3 meter) of snow on Boston—yet mayors in New York and New Jersey declared states of emergency. So why the difference in response to the same storm?

Different departments handle that responsibility depending on which city you're in. In the nation's capital, that responsibility falls to the public works director. (See "Editor’s Picks: Our Favorite Pictures of the U.S. Snowstorm.")

The main responsibility of a city or state government is to keep the major roadways clear, says Linda Grant, chief communications officer at the Department of Public Works in Washington, D.C. (See Washington’s snow plan.)

"The Public Works Department in D.C. makes recommendations to the mayor based on the safety of the roads for drivers," says Grant. "And if the snow on the roads is higher than the average vehicle clearance, then we consider the roads to be impassible."

Grant used the example of 2010's back-to-back blizzards—nicknamed "Snowpocalypse" or "Snowmageddon"—when D.C. was shut down for several days, as a benchmark for how the Public Works Department determines if the city's roads are impassible. (See also: "More Mega-Snowstorms Coming—Global Warming to Blame?")

"During [Snowmageddon], we were able to keep the snow to only two inches [five centimeters] on major roadways," she says. "But the smaller ones accumulated 10 to 12 inches [25 to 30 centimeters].

"The average vehicle clearance from the ground to the undercarriage is eight to ten inches [20 to 25 centimeters]," Grant explains. "Cars will not be able to move easily along streets where snow is above this threshold."

That prompted the public works director to recommend shutting the city down during the 2010 storms.

Since 2000, the federal government has shut down 13 times—an average of one closure per year. This number is high compared to a city like Denver, Colorado, which has closed the city's offices only a handful of times in the past eight years.

In Denver, which frequently hosts high levels of snowfall, the amount of snow is not as much of a contributing factor in the decision to shut the city down as is the impact of windchill, temperature, and the time of snowfall on the city's schools, its airport, and local transportation.

"We make these decisions on a case-by-case basis," says Rowena Alegria, director of communications for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.

"Denver is a city surrounded in snow," she explains. "We have a large team of snow removal experts ready and waiting for large-scale removal."

"We hardly ever shut down our city; typically, we issue delays."

In cities like Washington, D.C., large-scale snow removal is not usually necessary for the city to operate on an average winter day. Thus, the city's ability to clear the roads for public and personal transportation is a big contributing factor in how it responds to a large accumulation of snow.

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