American Views Abroad

Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Snow Falling on Hamburg
It's been a cold city since a week before Christmas. Lulled by years of uncommonly mild winters, this city has all but forgotten what winter can bring, what it used to be like. Snow started falling in December and at first everyone was enchanted with the idea of having a white Christmas. No one bothered to clean the streets. After all, it's a freak of nature in these times of global warming and it wouldn't last more than a few days. Temperatures continued to drop. News reported very cold weather on the way before New Year and indeed it began to snow, and it got colder and it snowed more. Eventually the ground became so cold, the snow turned to ice, and winter, it seemed, just continued to reinvent itself.

Hardly anyone bothered to clean the streets. Around twenty years ago the laws changed. No side streets were to be cleared of snow, only the main ones. Since the city no longer considered side streets worth the effort, some people living on those streets decided to take the same stance. Why bother shoveling, hacking, throwing down some sand. Even on main streets in front of shops there was far too little effort shown. Small paths were cleared but getting from the car to that path means surviving very thick layers of ice. Hundreds of citizens have been rushed to hospitals with broken limbs. Hundreds more are literally being held hostage, confined to their apartments, fearful of venturing out onto the ice, particularly the elderly. Driving on side streets is next to impossible, biking is not an option and walking is far too risky. Six weeks and counting.

What has the city government done? It finally got around to having a crisis call this past Monday. First, most government agencies here are hardly in any better shape than the rest of the city. Why? A number of years ago, someone, most likely with a MBA, decided Hamburg should sell off lots of its buildings and then rent them back. Most citizens never understood what the city was to gain from this, other than short term profit. What everyone now understands is the new owners of these buildings are not interested in shoveling snow. Certainly not more than a small path. Getting from the subway across large swatches of very thick ice to these buildings is risking serious falls and injuries. Add to this the 'joys' of privatizing winter services instead of using the Sanitation Department. Let's face it: it's much cheaper not to use any one in a union. Pay the private ones six or seven euros an hour and one thought the outcome would be the same. It's not. They often don't bother to show up. Even right in front of City Hall. Subcontracting city services to private firms has proved to be a disaster.

There is, however, one side street fully ice free, compliments of the Sanitation Department. It's the one where the president of the Hamburg Senate lives. It's very cold in Hamburg these days with temperatures dropping even more, on many levels.

According to weather reports this severe cold spell does not disprove global warming. Most of Europe is locked in between a high in Siberia of -35C and a high over Greenland of -20C which is not letting the milder air in.

Betsy has been telling me about the ice but the magnitude of the problem didn't sink in until I read your post.

We are not in much better shape although it is not for a want of trying just a lack of effectiveness with dealing with the largest storm in anyone's living memory.

This is winter's job, though, to remind us that it is better to be the ant than the grasshopper.
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