How Big Cities Handle Large Snowstorms

A white mountain for one city is a white molehill for another.

The same snowstorm can cause either panic or eye-rolling among city dwellers based on the snow-readiness of their local government. Storm strength is typically measured in how long a municipality is shut down—as well as the associated costs.

On the East Coast, residents of some cities, like Boston, take winter storms in snow-shoed stride. In Raleigh, it's a different story. New York City gets its fair share of snow, and it costs a lot to get rid of it. In 2015, city officials estimated that cleaning up after winter storms cost it $1.8 million per inch of accumulated snow. Others have different measurements. Scott Bernhardt, president of Planalytics, which studies the economic impact of the weather, told NPR that the “basic metric” in New York City is that, up to the first 3 or 4 inches, the cost is a million dollars an inch.

In Washington, D.C., with the performance of the federal government at stake, the nation's capital has worked hard in recent years to improve its response to winter storms. For example, in 2015, Washington had 345 pieces of equipment and approximately 750 personnel available for any given storm. For the 2016-2017 snow season, those numbers are up to more than 800 personnel and 447 pieces of equipment.

As the Analytics@American graphic below shows, storm size doesn't necessarily matter. Even though Boston's Winter Storm Juno and New York City's Winter Storm Jonas in 2016 were both much bigger than Washington's Snowmageddon in 2010, they didn't grind things to a halt for nearly as long.

But Washington appears to have learned some lessons along the way. Although New York City still got up and running before the nation's capital after Jonas, Washington rebounded from Jonas much more nimbly than it did from Snowmageddon six years earlier.

Snowed in Cities

Cities handle snow in different ways. What can shut down one city may not even slow down another. To examine this further, Analytics@American explored how five major cities dealt with some of the biggest winter storms of the past 20 years. This graphic compares the cities in three categories: the size of the major storm, how long each city shut down for the storm, and the amount spent on snow removal for the season in question.

City Snow Storm (Season) Storm Snowfall Season Snowfall Avg. Season Snowfall Days Closed Season Cost of Snow Program
Raleigh N/A (1999-2000) 20.3 Inches 26 inches 5 5 days $15 million
Buffalo (2001-2002) 82.3 Inches 130 93.4 5 Days $7 Million
Washington D.C. Snowpocalypse-Snowmageddon ('09-'10) 17.8 Inches ('10) 70 inches 15.4 Inches 3 Days ('10) $25 Million
Boston Winter Storm Juno ('14-'15) 24.4 Inches 110.6 Inches 43.5 Inches 1 Day $40 Million
New York City Blizzard of '06 ('05-'06) 26.9 Inches 40 inches 28.8 1 Day $44 Million
Washington D.C. Winter Storm Jonas (2015-2016) 22 inches n/a 15.4 3 Days n/a
New York City Winter Storm Jonas (2015-2016) 26.8 Inches n/a 28.8 0 Days n/a

Buffalo's storm cost more than $46 million in snow removal, but the expense didn't fall entirely on the city. There was so much snow that Buffalo was declared a disaster area and federal and state funds were allocated to assist with removal.


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