D.C. Snow Panic

Photo The U.S. Capitol is dusted in a light snow Monday as the Washington area is greeted with winter weather The picture on the right is from the front of the Washington Post‘s website, depicting the first snow of the season. The forecasts had called for 2-6 inches of the white stuff in the area but we fell somewhat short of that.

The amount of sheer panic that goes on here when there’s snow continues to baffle me–and I say that as someone who has lived most of his life in the South. While I always thought of D.C. as Northern, which it is in many ways culturally, weatherwise it is very much Southern. Despite the fact that this is mostly a region of transplants, people don’t know how to drive in snow and ice and major snowstorms are sufficiently rare that the infrastructure for snow removal is inadequate for those times when we get more than a couple of inches.

This related story, on page C1, is rather amusing:

A Tissue Of Lies

Let’s put this whole milk-bread-and-toilet-paper myth to rest right here, right now. You, sitting there all comfy and warm awaiting the first blanket of white, know exactly what we’re talking about. Since time and TV weather forecasts began, milk, bread and toilet paper — MBTP — have been the media stars of every snowstorm, cliches wrapped in plastic. Milk certainly qualifies. And bread, too. But toilet paper? Toilet paper doesn’t really belong in the holy grocerial trinity of every snow panic.

MBTP are supposedly what everyone runs to the store for at the first sign of a flake or flurry. More than staple commodities, they are the supposed bench marks of the region’s ability to “cope” with a few inches of snow. Look! gawp the TV weather people, zooming in on denuded supermarket shelves, as if a Dupont Circle supermarket had suddenly turned into a Soviet supply depot. It’s not really snowing until someone reports a run on MBTP.

Only it might be a bit of an urban myth. Yesterday, after predictions of the season’s first good storm, spokesmen for the Safeway and Giant grocery store chains said they saw plenty of evidence of hoarding and panic buying — but no straight-to-the-top-of-the-sales-chart relationship among milk, bread and toilet paper. Compared with a snowless Dec. 5 a year ago, milk and bread sales roughly doubled Monday at Safeway’s 100 stores throughout the mid-Atlantic region, spokesman Greg Ten Eyck said. Those two products were among the chain’s best sellers, he said. Then again, so were bacon, scrapple and eggs (“People are planning big breakfasts after the snow,” he said), along with fruit, water, soda, infant formula, Kool-Aid and boneless chicken breasts. And toilet paper? Ten Eyck checked with his company’s sales department. “Toilet paper wasn’t in the top 50 products” sold, he said. Giant spokesman Barry Scher, too, said there was nothing special about his company’s MBTP index. Everything was moving briskly, he said: bread, eggs, canned goods, luncheon meats, batteries, even — go figure — ice cream.


Even in places that get plenty of snow, there’s nothing really noteworthy about toilet-paper sales. In such frosty Midwestern and Western states as Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico and Colorado, the big sellers are bread, milk, kitty litter, batteries and shovels, said Jeff Stroh, a spokesman for the Safeway division that represents that region. “Everyone can agree on bread and milk,” he said, but beyond that “we don’t have a top-three or -four list.”

Stroh said there’s a good reason why people don’t necessarily need to hoard toilet paper before a storm — because it’s usually in abundant supply around the home. Think about it, he said: You run out of a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread fairly quickly, and need to resupply at regular intervals. But toilet paper comes in humongous packages: 12-roll packs, 24-roll sizes, 48-roll monsters that could withstand a blizzard of gastrointestinal distress.

So, there you have it.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bithead says:

    And we who live in Western NY, where we get around 120 inches per year on average, wonder what all the fuss is about, with incredulous looks on our faces.

  2. M. Murcek says:

    I don’t drink milk or eat bread, but when we think we’re going to get snowed in down here in southwestern PA, I always make sure there’s a half gallon of Wild Turkey and a crock-pot of chili in the kitchen and a couple days worth of firewood right outside the front door…

  3. LJD says:

    You would think a guy named Stroh would have come up with the #1 seller prior to a snowstorm:

  4. ICallMasICM says:

    It gives old people something to do.

  5. John Burgess says:

    DC is “culturally” Northern? Only the transplants.

    My wife’s family has lived in DC since before it was DC, i.e., when it was still part of Maryland. Its native culture is very much Southern, in almost every way.

    I believe it was JFK who joked about it as combining “Northern hospitality” with “Southern efficiency”.

    And, since I seem to be on a contrarian toot, I suspect the bad driving results more from not knowing just which regional bad-driving habit the next guy is practicing. If you live in one place for a while, you get used to the strange crap the local drivers pull… like right turns from the middle lane, or pulling out of parking places directly into traffic.

    I learned to drive in western New England, so bad roads were no stranger to me. But in DC, I don’t know if the guy next to me knows how to deal with that skid he’s sliding into and (appropriately, I believe) give him a lot of extra time and space to make his mistake without taking me out in the process.

    This analysis, however, does not explain panic at 1/4″ of rain.

  6. James Joyner says:

    John: Agreed on the rain.

    In terms of DC Metro’s “Northern” culture I cite mostly its leftist politics and snobbishness in terms of dress, restaurant dining, and the like. Partly, this is a function of being “urban” more than “Northern” but has much more in common with New York or Boston than, say, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Charlotte, Memphis, Birmingham, or other big cities further South.

  7. Chris says:

    If you want a real southern city, head north on the Parkway to Balitmore, Hon.

  8. Karl Maher says:

    I moved to Denver last year from North Carolina. Back east, if snow was in the forecast, it was all anyone talked about all week. And then it usually wound up not snowing.

    In Denver, snow is unremarkable. So if you miss the latest forecast, you can wake up surprised (8 inches Saturday, and I don’t think it was forecast at all). Yesterday we had — seriously — 98 mph winds, blowing snow all over the place. Seven degrees this morning. Five below forecast for tonight. And more snow.


  9. John Burgess says:

    No big argument here. I guess it’s that DC is actually several cities, each with its own culture and values, occupying the same geographic space.

    While fading, if not completely overwhelmed by outsiders, there’s a “trogolodytic” Washington remaining. This is the Southern city, complete with its accoutrements like the Chevy Chase, Metropolitan, and Sulgrave Clubs. Even these, though are being taken over by the new power structures, mostly involving lobbyists.

    There’s also Black Washington. Far Anacostia is very different from most of the rest of the city–it’s also the area with the highest crime rates. But it’s also different from upper 16th St, traditionally the home of the Black middle class professionals, though they, too, have fled the city. And the ganstas aren’t the same as the church ladies, even if they live in the same neighborhoods.

    Then there is the migratory Washington, people who are there on government assignments, or working with the “support systems” that feed the gov’t, like think-tanks, lobbyists, and the various associations. These folks are around for two-ten years, then move off to other assignments or jobs. They, too, are the loony drivers, the die-hard liberals, the urban “elite/effete”.

    Just have to specify which Washingtonians you’ve in mind…

  10. Reporter for Doody says:

    Southern California panics over rainfall. The media is all over the area monitoring puddles. It paints a picture of calamity to get the area declared a disaster and obtain federal funds for clean up and damages.

  11. Plaid Aardvark says:

    Panic is the right way to put it, when you compare DC to other areas.

    Fiancé and I were in Niagara Falls/Buffalo for Thanksgiving and, that Friday, it snowed about a foot. The local news desk report, basically, went like this….

    “It snowed a foot…..now to sports”

    Compare that to DC, with its 20 minutes snow doom and gloom stories lead by the “Storm Tracker Team!” “Snow Stoppers!” “Snow Stacker!”. Hype, be thy name.

    For this transplant (from suburban Philly), it’s almost comical, because when I grew up (not so long ago), what we got today in DC would not even be worthy of a local press report.

  12. DL says:

    For you young folks; the first plane to land on Iwo Jima was loaded with, you guess it, toilet paper. Those giant fern leaves don’t work so well with 10 inch centepedes hiding on them!

  13. Tina says:

    Plaid Aardvark: I’m in suburban Philly. KYW (local all-news radio) was going into their usual full-fledged nervous breakdown at the thought of 1-3″ (but it could be 3-6!!!!! Panic!) which turned into a heavy dusting. Seems like the usual drill to me.

    (Given the results of the Eagles game, I wish we’d had a 2-foot blizzard…)

  14. DC Loser says:

    Thunderbird, you must have missed the one that ripped through Arlington and skipped across the Potomac to the Maryland side a couple of years ago.

  15. Plaid Aardvark says:

    Tina: Thanks for the update, times have changed I guess (local media saw the ratings in hype I suppose).

    For the record, When I grew up in Havertown in the 80’s, when it snowed we didn’t get the “snow panic” that happens today.

    In fact, unless it was 2 inches of ice on the ground; school was rarely canceled becuase of a couple inches.

  16. John Burgess says:

    Admittedly, I was a bit shorter then, but I certainly recall walking to school in western MA and not being able to see buses passing by five feet away. Between the plows and shoveled walks, there was easily 6′-8′ of snow between the sidewalk and the roadway.

    I was lucky in learning to drive. Two uncles, one a state cop, the other a busdriver, took over the training. They insisted on classes only when the roads were in bad shape. They figured–correctly–that any moron could drive on sunny days and dry roads. It took learning to drive on black ice in fog.

    Living in Florida now, I can absolutely vouch for the “any moron” part….