SMEM vs. Cabin Fever

Variable message sign reading "Blizzard Warning - Fri-Sat" along northbound Interstate 95 and the eastbound outer loop of the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495) near Exit 174 in Rose Hill, Fairfax County, Virginia

Variable message sign reading “Blizzard Warning – Fri-Sat” along northbound Interstate 95 and the eastbound outer loop of the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495) near Exit 174 in Rose Hill, Fairfax County, Virginia

Millions of people have been affected by the blizzard that hit the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region during the weekend, with the storm’s after-effects still being felt days after the last snowflake fell.

Here, in Virginia’s Hampton Roads region, schools and local government offices are closed, hazardous driving conditions persist on secondary roads and emergency managers are busy coordinating infrastructure recovery. Local businesses are also still in the process of getting back to routine operations.

I noticed an interesting phenomenon playing out continuously on social media channels in the hours after the storm – emergency managers urging people not to drive, while simultaneously local businesses urged people to “Come on out! We’re open!” Err on the side of caution and stay off icy, slushy roads or take a chance and be extra careful to alleviate the “cabin fever” that comes from days stuck indoors?

This region doesn’t often see snow accumulation, so during this big storm, accompanied with bitter cold, the messaging from emergency managers was and has been what you would expect, including:

  • Cars on roadways can hamper treatment and removal equipment operators.
  • Unsafe conditions could mean more accidents for those who choose* to drive (141 in this area during the storm, according to one news report).
  • Secondary roads that can’t be treated or plowed could mean more stranded vehicles (434 here, according to that same news report).
  • Accidents can have secondary effects (e.g., more than 7,500 people in one community lost power after a driver struck a utility pole).
  • Extreme cold increases the chances of hypothermia and frost bite.

Emergency management folks in Virginia did a great job communicating the myriad safety messages throughout the storm and its (ongoing, as of this writing) aftermath, using SMEM tactics. That said, and with many businesses owners taking to SM to drum up business, leads me to a few questions:

  • How do emergency managers feel about business owners urging people to get out of the house when their messages are the opposite?**
  • Restoring infrastructure and commerce after an event like this is important, but is it irresponsible for business owners to ignore public safety warnings to promote customer visits?***
  • To whom would an emergency manager communicate and what would she say if she perceived that business owners were promoting risky behavior, given unsafe conditions? Individual business district associations?
  • Without mandatory street closings during a snow and ice event, is the burden of safety for self and others ultimately the responsibility of individual citizens who choose to heed or ignore safety “suggestions?”

The answers to some of those questions may be easy for emergency managers to give, but what is the solution when there’s a perception that social media users are potentially exacerbating their efforts to help keep the public safe? What’s the counter-argument from business owners?

I wouldn’t mind (hint, hint) hearing the opinions of both business owners and emergency managers in the comments below. I have my own thoughts when it comes to all these questions, but I’d like to hear others before I write a follow-up post.

*I’m not talking about people who have to drive during these conditions, for the sake of argument. That’s a different issue.

**Anecdotally, some businesses did include “… if you can get here safely …” notes with their marketing messages, but that was the minority during my monitoring. Also, I’m referring to businesses that offer “nice to have” services and products, not “need to have.”

***Based on my own monitoring of traditional and social media, it would be almost impossible for the average citizen to not know that such warnings existed before, during and after the storm.


Image by WikiCommons user Famartin used under Creative Commons license. Original image here. The image has not been altered. Note: This image is from a 2016 weather event, not the weather event discussed in this post.

2 thoughts on “SMEM vs. Cabin Fever

  1. Interesting. About 100 miles to your north, in the Baltimore-Washington area, we have has 5 20-inch plus snowstorms since Dec. of 2009. That’s an unusual run for us. In my nearly 60 years, from the 1950s through the 2000s, we typically have one per decade. I have to admit I rarely have encountered businesses encouraging people to come out in these conditions. Typically, most placed close for a couple of days, except for convenience stores and health care facilities. And the media is really good about amplifying our message to stay off the roads. Our bigger issues come with the smaller, sometimes less well predicted storms, especially at rush hour. On the other hand, with the inauguration coming up Friday, someone was asking the Washington Post transportation columnist how to best get across town at 4 p.m. Friday to get to Yoga Teacher Training Class. On the afternoon of the inauguration. In Washington. Amazing. It’s not like the inauguration sneaks up on us.


    • It was the darndest thing to watch play out, Ed. All the EM folks down this way were great and were pushing appropriate safety messages out via all their channels, and the media was really responsible about telling people to stay home and off the streets. For the most part, the businesses (that I saw) doing their best (?) to open quickly, then encourage people to come out were non-chain Mom and Pop establishments — and I get that. Who’s going to suffer the most due to weather closures? Them. But, for days and days after the “blizzard,” this was an unsafe area for travel by car –– mostly because this area doesn’t have the equipment in place to handle more than a few inches of snow (quickly) and accumulation is so infrequent (every couple years) that many residents aren’t well-versed in snow/ice driving and preparing their vehicles for that evolution. Paul and I talked about it as the snow was starting to fall, and we both came to the same conclusion — “*I* can drive in snow and ice, but that doesn’t mean other people on the road can!” (Paul grew up in Toronto, I grew up in Northeastern Ohio and Pennsylvania, for what it’s worth). This area got 6″-7″ and was shut-down (for the most part) for 4-5 days. That was the intriguing part of watching these business owners open the day after the storm and do what they did. I like the WaPo/inauguration anecdote — lived and worked in DC for three years. My only comment to that highly-motivated individual: “Wow.” Although, that might be a really great class! hahaha!


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