Blizzard Response

The last few days in Washington DC have been defined by snow (See NYT report) – falling, sticking around, and disrupting normal life. What's been fun to observe is how people and businesses are reacting to this.

On Friday evening I went to Eatonville (a local restaurant) and was chatting to the manager. Their plan was to stay open as long as transport held out that evening – their primary concern was ensuring their staff got home safely. Their sister restaurant, Busboys and Poets had taken a different tack. They'd booked all their staff into local hotels for the night – that enterprise wanted to be open for breakfast at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday as normal. (It was). Also open then was the U Street Cafe my favorite coffee shop.

On Friday night Wholefoods shut early but Yes Organic went right on till the normal closing time. On Saturday I went for two walks – one at 10:00 a.m. as the blizzard did its stuff and one at 5:00 p.m. when it had moved on. Wholefoods was completely shut all day but again Yes Organic on 14th St. was open. I passed many other retail outlets and although I attempted to find a 'unifying theory' of closure or open-ness I was unable to. The pattern seemed random – some chains were open, for example, McDonalds on 'my' corner was in full swing, but of the three CVS's I passed one was open, and two others were shut. Some mom and pop shops were open and again others were shut. So what was prompting the differences? Several theories sprang to mind:

a) Concern for staff safety about getting home. Overground public transport stopped from mid Friday evening and has still not resumed (now Monday). Today, all Federal Government offices are shut.

b) A cost/return calculus based on financials – there are so few people out why try and stay open we won't make any money?

c) A cost/return calculus based on customer service – there are so few people out but those who are will need our services and be loyal in the longer term.

d) A risk mitigation concern – e.g. what if we can't keep our floors dry and someone slips and sues us

e) A compliance concern e.g. Head Office regulations specify that if stocks drop below xxx we have to close (or conversely a diktat like "we never close")

f) Inability to open because staff had not showed up

g) Level of manager autonomy/initiative to make a decision that he/she thought right in the circumstances

h) Structural inability to open e.g. from power failure or fear of power failure.

i) Lack or presence of disaster recovery/contingency plan for this type of scenario

Pondering this on my 5:00 p.m. walk I got to Dupont Circle. Not having been Twittered (tweeted?) by anyone about the Great Snowball Fight I did not know about it. But it was there in full pelt. (My mother saw it on the BBC news and wondered if I was there!) I discovered that the Dupont Hotel – clearly the financial+customer calculus there – on the corner had set up a sidewalk bar (built out of snow) where they were serving hot and cold drinks – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. With mulled wine in hand I watched the fight and marveled at the power of Twitter which was on my mind anyway since I'd just been reading the Economist special report on social networking discussing how social networking technologies change the way people organize themselves.

What I didn't see (which is part of 'normal' life) on 14th and P Streets were the several homeless people who live their lives on the sidewalks. Where did they go? Central Union Mission is the shelter on 14th St & R, while Martha's Table provides not night shelter but food and clothing for the needy. Today I'll walk over and find out how those organizations are responding to the blizzard. I wonder if they'd faced any choice about staying open or closing down and how they'd managed to organize in the face of the storm.