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Why the South Fell Apart in the Snow

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I get it. Two inches of snow shuts down major metropolitan areas (not just Atlanta). It's funny! It's funny because when it snows two inches where you live, it's nothing, you might as well be in West Palm Beach. Southerners lose their shit, though! Hilarious.

It's fine if that's how you want to process what happened yesterday and today. But if you do, you are wrong, and you are an asshole.

Why You're Wrong

Let's talk for a second about exactly what happened down here, instead of just looking at pictures of abandoned cars and assuming that Southerners fear snow the way Encino Man feared fire.


I can't speak for Atlanta, although Conor Sen does a great job breaking down what happened there over at The Atlantic. But I can speak for what happened here in Birmingham, my home for the last three years and source of lots of pictures, like this one, that are confounding/amusing you on Twitter this morning:


280 off of Lakeshore Drive, about 15 minutes from my house. Photo credit: @nfmcewen

Let's start by talking about why Birmingham wasn't prepared. In the general case, why would it be? It hasn't snowed in January here for 21 of the last 30 years. In that same period, it's only snowed more than an inch four times. Birminghamians need snowplows like New Yorkers need tornado shelters.


Speaking of which, have you seen the county's budget lately? Actually, you may have! Jefferson County—this is where Birmingham is located, named after Thomas Jefferson, not Jefferson Davis—filed for what was at the time the nation's largest-ever municipal bankruptcy in 2011. It just emerged a few weeks ago. Basically, we're broke. Which is why the city has invested the few resources it has at its disposal in keeping the lights on, rather than, I dunno, salt reserves or whatever you people in Maine have to clear the roads.

So in general Birmingham is not equipped to handle snow of any magnitude, because it has no reason to be, and even if it did it couldn't afford to.


Highway 75 in Atlanta, John Bazemore/AP

But wait! While it doesn't snow often here, it does snow sometimes. And while it generally shuts the city down, it doesn't turn into a deleted scene from The Road. So why was this time so much worse?


There's a simple explanation for that one, too. Birmingham is one of those cities that shuts down at the faintest hint of snow. Again, this isn't because we are rubes who wonder why God's tears have turned white and fall slower. It's because the city does not have the infrastructure in place to handle snow, and is self-aware enough to realize it. If you don't know how to swim, just stay out of the pool. Easy.

This time, though, the city did not shut down. Schools were open. Places of business kept businessing. That's because as of Tuesday morning, we were being told that all that was coming was a light dusting:


That's no disrespect to James Spann, who is a wonderful weatherperson and a bit of a local legend. But reports like that meant that when the snow actually started in earnest—and it became clear that it was going to stick—people were in offices and kids were at school, instead of being at home like they normally would.

That, in turn, meant that everyone was trying to get home at the same time, on snowy, icy roads that had not been treated, in cars that do not have four-wheel-drive (why would they?). These are, for the most part, people who do not drive in snow very often, which means that accidents like this one were common:


Photo credit: Scott Walker/

Put crashes like that on every major thruway in a city with a greater metro area of over a million people, and you've got yourself a pretty dire situation.


Why You're an Asshole

I want to be clear right off that not everyone is being an asshole about this. Plenty of people are genuinely confused about how something like this could have happened, and it's a valid thing to be confused about. I lived in Manhattan for seven years before I moved here. I would have been confused too.


But if you're making light of the situation, or more realistically using it to reinforce your view of the South and the people in it as full of backwards blubberers, you are an asshole. It's hard to remember sometimes, but things are different in places you do not personally live.

When it snows where you live, the salt and the snowplows are out on the streets before you even wake up. When you talk about six inches of snow in your city, you are almost definitely talking about six inches of snow on the median strip and shoulder, and highways that are slick, but clear. I'd take that over two inches of snow and ice on every major road any day.


When it snows where you live, it is the latest in a string of snowfalls that date back centuries. You own a car with four-wheel-drive for that very purpose. You may even own snow tires. This is great! You are prepared. But waking up in Birmingham to snow is like waking up in New Hampshire to quicksand.

When it snows where you live, you're able to pick up your kids and get home and sit by the fireplace (you have firewood and a fireplace, because it is cold often). As of two hours ago, 4,000 children were still stuck in public schools—where they spent the night—because their parents had no way to reach them.


If you are a parent, part of you just sank. If you are not a parent, try to imagine part of yourself sinking.


When it snows where you live, people may die. That happened to five people here, at last count. Those deaths aren't funny or quirky just because it happened below the Mason-Dixon.

I work from home; I got off easy. The worst that's happened to me in this storm is that my pipes temporarily froze (again), and that I don't have my usual childcare options today. But I have many friends who spent the night at their offices last night, who had to abandon their cars and walk four miles in 12 degree weather to get home to their families.


They aren't idiots, they're not small-towners. And they're definitely not a punchline.

Top photo credit: Melodie Norman Haas/Facebook