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Meteorologists had predicted a rough winter for Chicago, with heavy snow that would start in November. An average winter blesses us with 39 inches; the forecasters promised more than 50. "People in Chicago are going to want to move after this winter," Josh Nagelberg, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.com, warned in October. WGN-TV’s Tom Skilling said Chicago was in store for extra snow because of a “La Niña” event—cooling of water in the equatorial Pacific.
But Skilling et. al. were overlooking a crucial event right here at home: Rahm Emanuel’s election as mayor. If snow wants to land here now, it first must clear it with Chicago’s El Niño Numero Uno.
And it apparently hasn’t been getting approval. From Rogers Park to Hegewisch, up Clybourn and down Archer, not a flake has stuck to a sidewalk or street since Rahm was sworn in on May 16th. Three times last month, gangs of flurries briefly threatened the city’s peace. But when they tried to land in Rahm’s Chicago, they were dead on arrival.
On average, November 16th is Chicago’s first day of measurable snow—meaning at least 0.1 inch. In 109 of the 127 years that records have been kept, there’s been measurable snow here by the end of November. Before Rahm, no Chicago mayor in 65 years had kept the snow at bay through November in his or her first year in office. It snowed in November for the fearsome Boss Richard J. Daley in 1955, for the less-fearsome Michael Bilandic in 1977, for Jane Byrne in 1979, for Harold Washington in 1983. In Richard M. Daley’s first year as mayor, 1989, it snowed in October.
Perhaps Rahm is simply more motivated to demonstrate his power. Two weeks ago, his budget squeaked through the city council, 50-0. In another city, that kind of vote would establish a mayor’s supremacy beyond doubt. But Chicago's aldermen would privatize Lake Michigan if a mayor instructed them to—so such a vote doesn’t prove that much. More evidence, Rahm knew, was needed.
He also appreciated the importance of snow as an issue. He was well aware that an especially bad winter—in ’79—had driven one mayor (Bilandic) from office. He’d seen how alarmed the city got from just two inches in the forecast. What did Chicagoans talk about most when he shook their hands at el stops? The budget? The schools? Crime? No. It was snow, and the grief it caused—the el and bus delays, the fights for parking spaces, the unplowed streets and alleys.
Rahm also realized that snow not only inconveniences, it also wrecks a city’s budget. The overtime for streets and sanitation! The tons of salt! The workman’s comp for slip and falls!
And Rahm had developed a personal grudge against snow during the mayoral campaign. You may recall that when a blizzard belted the city in February, Rahm and most of his fellow mayoral candidates rushed outside, to wherever help was needed and a camera present. But Rahm, 51 then, paid a price for his valiant shoveling and car-pushing, the Reader has learned. “He's had pain in his lower back ever since,” a mayoral aide told us. The aide spoke anonymously, because he was authorized to talk only about Emanuel’s achievements in triathalons and not his lumbago. Rahm “had choice words for the snow,” the aide recalled.
Above all, Rahm recognized the untapped political potential of a snowless Chicago winter. He thought of the bump in winter tourism if people knew they could count on a dry Magnificent Mile, November through March. He imagined the headlines: “Going north—to Chicago—for the winter”; “It’s a wonderful town, even in January”. Rahm’s town. And he knew that if the snow didn’t fall, the mayor could rise: a mayor who kept a northern city snowless could soar to higher office. Not that he ever entertained such notions as: governor in 2015, president in 2020.
Everyone talks about the weather. Rahm decided to do something about it. Since it was a new and risky operation, he decided to keep it on the down low. But the Reader has learned from unimpeachable sources the story behind the covert snow prevention effort.
At a September meeting in city hall, Rahm asked his closest advisers for ideas. As the advisers lobbed out snow removal suggestions, the mayor grew impatient. “Inside-the-box thinking,” he growled. Then he winced and rubbed his lower back. “The problem isn’t the goddamn snow removal,” he said. “The problem is the goddamn snow. If you get my drift.”
The advisers got his drift. They hired engineers and considered proposals. The first plan called for a retractable dome over the city, with chutes above O’Hare and Midway, but that one was discarded as too expensive.
Instead Rahm chose to adapt the “Strategic Defense Initiative” devised in the 1980s during the Reagan administration. SDI was intended to protect the nation against nuclear attack by intercepting ballistic missiles before they arrived.
Rahm’s SDI—his Snow Defense Initiative—is also preemptive. In high-rises along Chicago’s borders, the mayor has deployed sharpshooters armed with automatic weapons that fire microscopic pellets that melt snow on contact. The marksmen are authorized to shoot any snow clouds or snowflakes approaching the city.
So far the downed clouds haven’t left much snow in the suburbs adjoining Chicago. But this could change as temperatures drop, and the suburban mayors are uneasy. They envision an embarrassing disparity as winter marches on, with soaring snowbanks in Evanston and Lincolnwood, Elmwood Park and Oak Park, Cicero and Stickney, Oak Lawn and Evergreen Park, and Riverdale and Burnham, while Chicago remains bone-dry.
Rahm will have to deal with such concerns. He also knows that not everyone in Chicago hates snow—that some people, in fact, enjoy it and will miss it. “But most of them are kids, and kids don’t vote,” a mayoral aide observed.
The latest that measurable snow has ever arrived here is December 16th (in 1965). That’s just 15 days away now, and Rahm desperately wants the record.
If it does snow here this winter, we’ll know the SDI system is flawed (as was Reagan’s SDI, which was discarded), and the mayor’s critics will have a field day. But we have faith in Rahm and we're pulling for him. We're hoping he can banish snow for the entire winter—and then next summer, maybe he can send the cicadas packing.