Off Limits

Strike while the irony is hot: Just last Thursday, Mayor Wellington Webb was showing off the city's snow equipment and emergency-preparedness plans, bragging that Denver was ready for anything El Nino might throw our way. He delivered his boast outside McNichols Arena, the facility bearing the name of the late Bill McNichols, the mayor who presided over Denver's last great blizzard, in December 1982, and was ousted from office the next May (when it snowed on election day). Federico Pena went on to win that race--defeating, among others, Wellington Webb.

Yep, the city was ready for El Nino--that big baby.
Less than two days later, the umbilical cord leading to Denver International Airport--the boulevard named for Pena, the mayor who brought us DIA--was cut off. The state-of-the-art airport, sold to voters as being weatherproof, remained open--but no one could get there, including airline crews, which meant flights would not be leaving Saturday. And no one could leave the airport by any other means. But then, Pena Boulevard was not one of the city's "super snow routes" touted at Thursday's press conference--that roadway falls under DIA's watch.

And DIA was caught napping.
It took the combined efforts of Denver police chief Dave Michaud and manager of safety Butch Montoya--in a Humvee with a busload of Broncos following close behind--to punch through Pena again. By 10 p.m. Saturday, RTD buses were able to rescue stranded travelers at the airport that never closed but was never precisely open.

Shortly thereafter, the blame game began.
Mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson--who drove his four-wheel vehicle to Webb's home at 3:30 a.m. Saturday to pick up the mayor--takes full responsibility for that Thursday press conference.

And Webb, who was out on the streets most of the weekend in a black cowboy hat, took responsibility at a hastily called press conference Monday night for miscommunication. "The standards I expected were not met," he said. "There was a major breakdown in communication."

Specifically, with one of the city's not-so-great communicators, who was missing in action for most of the weekend. Aviation director Jim DeLong, MIA at DIA, finally resurfaced Monday to take responsibility for the airport's failure to keep Pena clear. "I regret that I wasn't here," the sweater-clad DeLong told reporters. And where was he? DeLong had flown out of DIA to South Dakota on Friday, when storm warnings were already coming in, and didn't check in with the city until late Sunday, hours after his return. (In contrast, bomber-jacketed Governor Roy Romer flew from D.C. to Salt Lake City and on to Grand Junction, then drove to Denver in time to declare the state a disaster area Saturday.)

Just two flights left DIA late Saturday--one a charter bearing the Broncos to Buffalo, that renowned climate capital. That the Broncos escaped at all was thanks to the efforts of fans who heard radio pleas and answered the call to take stranded athletes to the team bus in Dove Valley. (Now if one of those volunteers can just make Shannon Sharpe wear some snow boots...) And the fact that the Broncos made it out--even though Webb vehemently denies that the city gave the team any special consideration--shows Pena could be made passable.

It must have been a great comfort for those still stranded by the side of the road to watch their team go by.

As the snow continues to melt, who gets stuck with the blame? Put DeLong at the top of the list and the much-maligned El Nino down low--scientists disagree over whether the baby boy played much of a role in the blizzard.

But there's no denying that Mother Nature can be a bitch.

Snow job: Even before the Denver Post bannered its Sunday paper with the inane (and inaccurate, judging from subsequent backpedaling) headline "El Nino's First Punch," the Rocky Mountain News was beating the snow pants off the broadsheet's blizzard coverage. Added bonus: The News's flurry of reporting pushed the flabby RockyTalk ("Views From the Piled High City") back where it belonged, to the back of the paper.

With their endless hours on air, Channels 4 and 9 wound up piling it high, though their on-site reporters (some of them only there because they were Buffalo-bound) were about the only sources of accurate information regarding Pena Boulevard's status Saturday. What will it take to convince the stations that we do not care what snowbound anchors--Bill Stuart, et al.--were cooking up back home?

When he's not making chili, Stuart co-anchors Channel 4's 6:30 p.m. news with Reynelda Muse. But with that newscast slated to be replaced with an updated version of Hollywood Squares--hey, they can get Rose Marie cheap--Muse has already submitted her resignation. Which means she's available should DIA come to its senses and decide to hire someone capable of providing travelers with useful information--after all, DIA's trains already feature Muse's recorded voice, issuing bossy instructions to travelers blocking the doors.

Street lethal: The poor shlubs snowbound on Pena Boulevard may have heard voices of their own--though in their case, they were likely the result of a carbon-monoxide-induced delirium. And when they weren't feeling one another's extremities or searching under seat cushions for anything edible, stranded drivers had time to try out the latest rage--road rage, that is, the hip new phenomenon sweeping the Front Range. Too bad rescue crews headed for DIA weren't equipped with the latest road-rage fact sheet issued two weeks ago by the Colorado State Patrol, a merry manifesto that advises readers, "Don't Make an 'A' Out of Yourself!"

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