Pittsburghers melt when the snow flies | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburghers melt when the snow flies

There was a time when Pittsburghers used to brag about their heartiness in winter weather.

They would regale you with stories of trudging five miles uphill to school -- both ways --in blinding, crippling blizzards. Those days are apparently long gone.

When the snow started flying last week -- a storm that forecasters predicted at least two days before it hit --Pittsburghers seemed to get caught up in an irrational panic -- canceling events and hopping on the first bus home. There actually is a diagnosed phobia of snow -- chionophobia.

Dr. David Orbison, a psychoanalyst based in Lawrenceville and chair of the education committee for the Pittsburgh Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, says a fear of things like snow usually manifest themselves out of a fear of not being in control.

"Snow is just one of the things in this area that give people that sense that they're not in control," Orbison says. "There are people who have fears of the turnpike, tunnels and bridges.

"It usually stems from some childhood trauma. In the case of snow it was probably a terrifying experience with snow and ice or they saw their parents react strangely to snow and ice."

The key to dealing with the phobia, Orbison says is finding a way to control and avoid it. But in the case of the weather, however, it is completely out of the person's control.

However, it is still strange that in a historically strong city, snow can bring its traditionally hearty people to their knees. We begin to quiver the first time WPXI tells us when the next big "Winter Wallop" or "Painful Bone-Crunching Storm-a-Palooza" is on the way.

When the storm was forecast last week, events and schools were cancelled by the ton. Tuesday the mayor even warned everyone to stay off the streets. Residents mobbed area grocery stores to stock up on the essentials -- bread, milk, Doritos and a good Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy. By early afternoon commuters were crammed on buses to get out of town because apparently the storm was less paralyzing in the suburbs.

Orbison says having the fear legitimized can often serve to reinforce, but also help control the phobia.

"When the mayor tells you to get out of the Downtown and you turn to the Severe Weather Center for information on what's coming next, you're localizing the fear and identifying these authority figures with it," Orbison explains. "I mean, if the mayor is telling you to leave, then there's really something to be afraid of."

It would seem by this point in the city's 249-year history that most of us would realize that it snows in February. Bob Coblentz, a meteorologist at Pittsburgh's National Weather Service is a little more understanding.... but, just a little.

"Really, people are a little desensitized to a real winter because it's been so benign. We had an extremely mild December and January. Six to 10 inches is going to create some hassles," Coblentz explains. "However, I think some of the people that have been living here all their lives think we've been living in the tropics!

"People just aren't ready. They figure it's mid-February -- people think March, they think flowers."

Coblentz is quick to point out that the weather did cause a few serious problems on the roads and didn't want to completely downplay last week's storm. However he also finds it strange when people "kind of freak out about normal winter weather -- which this is."

Orbison says people can be easily swayed toward the panic when anyone in alleged authority begins to legitimize that their worst fears are coming true. So when the mayor issues press releases or the news channels interrupt Oprah and Judge Judy for extra newscasts that give their fears a sense of legitimacy.

"[Last week] I probably talked to 50 of your counterparts," Coblentz says. "Most of it's on the sensationalistic end. They're looking for a story to feed the public what they want to hear, that's kind of how it's been."

There is another facet to Pittsburghers' fear and actions during snowstorms that Orbison discovered on Tuesday when he went to pick up his shirts at the dry cleaner.

"I got there at 2 p.m. and they were closed," he says with a laugh. "I didn't have one cancellation all day and I didn't think it was too bad, but the dry cleaners decided to close.

"Remember when you were a kid and the feeling you got whenever school would close because of the weather. I think in this city, we're dealing not so much with a phobia, but a bandwagon effect from a lot of people who just want to get a day off."