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A winter storm, and too much mayhem – Star Tribune

Opinion editor’s note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
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There’s a hesitation against making glib statements about the winter storm that consumed the nation leading up to and during the Christmas holiday. Dozens of deaths have been linked to the storm, with an epicenter in the snow belt of western New York.
But the fact remains: The weather doesn’t consult our calendars for scheduling conflicts, doesn’t care if our systems are ready, and sometimes has its way with those who fail to give danger the respect it warrants. Though many people suffering various consequences of the storm found themselves unavoidably in the wrong place at the wrong time, others placed themselves there.
This particular storm was well-advertised and turned out to be as broadly significant as forecasters warned. It was a stress test for networks of human design. There were failures.
Flight cancellations were numerous, as you’d expect when airports are struggling to keep their runways safe for takeoff and landing. All of the airlines left people in limbo — which we would note is better than being stranded outdoors — but one did worse than the others.
By Tuesday, when most of the airlines were getting back on track, Southwest was still canceling two-thirds of its flights, accounting for 86% of all domestic cancellations. It’s fair to ask why, as U.S. regulators did.
The airline’s executives said they needed to stay on a reduced schedule in order to get their system back in balance. The difficulties were attributed to several factors beyond the weather, including the particular setup of Southwest’s routes and an overwhelmed scheduling system for crews.
We urge the Department of Transportation to search for definitive answers and, if possible, solutions. It could be an excellent stress test in its own right — to see if the leadership capabilities of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a once and presumably future presidential candidate, can produce outcomes that match his eloquence.
For our part, we can’t help speculating that Southwest was so fine-tuned for efficiency it couldn’t handle a contingency. Efficiency has been a watchword of the modern era and has been responsible for a great deal of economic growth. Redundancy costs more. But to a point, it’s necessary.
Many passengers also were frustrated by clogged customer service lines, as you’d expect during a major event. But this is a system that operates obdurately in normal times, a state of affairs hardly unique to airlines and also pretty much a choice businesses have made.
Consider this: There’s now a service called Karens for Hire, staffed by get-me-the-manager types willing, for a fee, to navigate customer service on your behalf. (Motto: “We Karen so you don’t have to.”) The many fine Karens of the world may understandably resent the ongoing memefication of their name, but as one of the founders of Karens for Hire pointed out in a Washington Post article, “we’re not talking about screaming at the barista. We want to harness the power of Karens for good.”
The electrical grid was another system that broke down during the storm, with rolling blackouts in several states. It’s not the first bleak midwinter in which such a thing has happened.
Skeptics of renewable energy were quick to blame proponents of the same. (Also not for the first time.) It’s true that fossil fuels are still needed to help the electrical grid meet contingencies, let alone daily needs. One gets the impression, however, that the skeptics would prefer no attempt at a transition.
The adverse impacts of the fossil-fuel era are real and will turn in our favor only when reliance is diminished. The climate won’t pause to consider whether it’s inconvenient for humanity.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul acknowledged as much when she said that her state needed to be better prepared to handle increasingly serious storms in an era of climate change.
Which is not to argue that any individual storm is climate change personified. The weather has always been capable of outdoing itself.
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