Why do people panic buy before a snowstorm?

The eastern seaboard of the US has been hit by a major snowstorm starting last night that is shutting down major cities along the coast, like Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. In Cleveland we are used to a couple of such blizzards every winter but the path of this particular storm was such that it completely missed this area and we have not had any snow at all in the last few days. In fact, the entire winter has seen only about 8 inches of snow so far, when the average by now should be close to 30 inches.

The best advice for people in this situation is to not go out at all if you can avoid it. That is easier for me now that I am retired but when I was working, if a snowstorm hit during a workday, I would stay late in my office until the volume of traffic had died down and the snowplows had time to clear the streets. This was because the streets would be clogged and pretty much at a standstill and some drivers, even in Cleveland, would not adjust their driving appropriately. The main thing that one has to do is to is drive really slow and put the car into a very low gear so that one avoids the use of the brake, and make very gradual changes in speed or direction.

But one thing that always puzzles me are the usual news reports of panic buying in stores just prior to the storm where people clear the shelves of all manner of items such as bread and milk and other staples. I can understand this if you live in a remote area where you might be snowbound for a long time. But in any major city, the city shuts down usually for just one day, on a few occasions two, and perhaps very rarely three.

Could it be that so many people who live in cities do not have food in their houses to last a couple of days? Do they buy their food needs each day? Surely at the worst one has a few cans of soup and crackers and other items in the house to tide you over until you are able to go out again? We are talking about a snowstorm after all, not the apocalypse.

I can understand people who have very specific needs like infants or elderly people or those who are ill and must make sure that certain items are available, but such people usually do not wait until they almost run out before resupplying such critical items. In fact, I avoid the stores just before a storm because I know that the parking lots will be jammed and inside will be packed with irritable people panic buying all manner of stuff and there will be long lines and interminable waits at the checkout lines.

I wonder if stocking up with food is not to satisfy real physical needs but emotional ones, that it gives one a sense of security to think that one could last for a week or more without having to go outside even if the chances of needing to do so are so remote. News reports of other people panic buying may just add to those feelings of insecurity and spur one to do the same.


  1. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    “But in any major city, the city shuts down usually for just one day, on a few occasions two, and perhaps very rarely three. ”

    Maybe the mayor can drive from his house to his office, and the airports are open, but the side streets can be clogged for MUCH longer. I was in Washington DC for a major snowfall (President’s Day Snowstorm of 1979 Snowfall: 18.7″ official with drifts) and it was over a week before our suburb ‘s streets were passable. We were not in hiking distance to any market -- maybe on a nice day, but few people are equipped for a 4 mile round trip through thigh-deep snow, with drifts.

    Here’s what happens -- the main streets get plowed, which leaves a berm of dense snow/ice barricading the entrances to all the side streets. You have to go out with picks or axes and hack your way through the ice to get to the cleared streets unless you want to wait for the plows to get to the side streets.

    And then the blighters come through the next tier of streets and leave ice in front of all the driveways. So you go through the same hacking and chopping just to get out of your driveway.

    And you make it to the supermarket, which may still have ice barricades from when its street was plowed … and find out that the trucks have not reached them because …. whatever.

  2. says

    put the car into a very low gear

    I thought higher gear was better; less likely to spin the tires.

    The best bit of advice on snow driving I heard was delivered by my ex-wife while she was checking up on the driver of the BMW that had just augered into a ditch: “if you’re in hazardous conditions and you’re blasting past all the rednecks in their 4x4s with knobby tires, you are probably making a mistake.”

  3. Mano Singham says


    Low gear enables you to tightly control the speed via just small variations in the accelerator. This prevents the car from speeding up and requiring you to use the brakes, which is always problematic though ABS systems help.

  4. says

    I wonder if stocking up with food is not to satisfy real physical needs but emotional ones, that it gives one a sense of security to think that one could last for a week or more without having to go outside even if the chances of needing to do so are so remote.

    I’d say it’s less that it gives a sense of security than it gives a sense of control. It’s something that you can do even if it’s not worthwhile. But it focuses you and makes you feel like you’re prepared.

    My approach to disaster preparedness is to look around and observe that disasters fall into two kinds: unpredictable -- more or less random, and expected -- New Orleans had dikes because flooding was expected. Against the unpredictable stuff it’s more or less pointless to plan. You could be ready for fires and have a blizzard instead. Oh, well. But if you live someplace where you ought to expect the levees to fail, or extended power outages, then you do basic planning around the expected failure scenarios. I live in north central PA, where we sometimes have nasty winters, in a rural area where it’s not unheard of to go a day or so without power during freezing rain when a lot of trees are coming down into power lines.* So we have generators. I have a couple; they are called “my truck” a diesel tractor idling can power an inverter that can keep a refrigerator cold and a furnace running or a well pumping -- all you need is a 100 foot extension cord and an inverter and some basic braining. I’m always a bit mind-boggled when there’s a storm in Florida and you see people going on about their freezer thawing: you can’t get anywhere in Florida without a car!

    (* WTF above ground power, anyway? When the Europeans did their great spate of redecorating and renovation called “WWII” they were smart enough to bury the power!)

  5. starskeptic says

    I think it’s an extension of this culture of fear propagated by Fox spilling out into the real world…

  6. estraven says

    I live in a rural area on a gravel road, and our road may not be plowed at all for as much as three days. And our driveway is 900 feet long and hilly; if for some reason my husband cant’t plow with the tractor (won’t start, failed to put the snow chains on, etc.) then we are well and truly snowed in for a bit. But not to the point of panic buying. On the other hand, an ice storm will send us out ahead of time to get batteries, water and so on because there’s a good chance of a power outage. We have a well that relies on an electrical pump so without power we have no water.

  7. flex says

    A couple comments;

    First, I would not be surprised if a couple of my friends in the DC area went panic shopping before the snow. They really don’t seem to keep much food in the house. They don’t cook and seem to eat out for almost every meal. I couldn’t afford it, but if they can, well, it hurts them in a situation like this. They have a pantry with some canned goods, but those have mostly expired and were probably purchased the last time there was a blizzard. They do keep fresh tea and coffee in the house, but that’s about it. To each their own I guess.

    Second, I’m sure you know it, but I’ve had to tell a number of my younger co-workers that those numbers on the shifter after the “D” for drive are very useful when driving on snow and ice. They prevent the car from shifting into a higher gear when the tires spin. Now you don’t see them much any more, what with automatic traction control and the like, but I used to drive in “2” all the time on the older cars in slippery conditions.

    In a manual, which I currently drive, I’ll start out in second gear so that the torque isn’t so high, but leave it in second or third to prevent the car from gaining too much velocity. Again, I keep trying to remind my co-workers (and my wife), that momentum increases with the square of velocity, and the mass is a constant when driving, so keeping the speed down can really enhance your control.

    Not that I haven’t gone off the road a few times. I consider myself a pretty good driver (don’t we all), but even so, I have miss-judged conditions at times.

  8. anat says

    We don’t get a lot of snow in the Pacific North West, but some 7 or 8 years ago we were snowed-in for about 2 weeks. Maybe major roads were navigable but neighborhood streets were not, and this is a hilly place so that further complicates things. We were at an advantage as we often bake our own bread and ever since becoming vegetarians we always have large stocks of dry legumes. So as long as we have electricity and water we are set. We have yet to have a power outage that lasts more than half a day.

  9. RossS says


    I thought Kinetic energy was mass times velocity squared while momentum was straight mass times velocity

    Either way I agree with your advice -- speed is insanity when the roads are slippy.


  10. says

    Snow is officially falling in Taiwan, and not just on Alishan (Ali Mountain), 2500 metres. The tallest mountain, Yushan (3900m), usually gets snow and is partially covered most of the year, but not like this.

    Snow has also fallen on Yangmingshan near Taipei, only 1100 metres. The number of times it has snowed there can be counted on your hands.



    I haven’t felt this cold in eleven years. I’m not used to it anymore, and I grew up with winters of -40°C.

  11. says

    In regards to panic buying…

    But one thing that always puzzles me are the usual news reports of panic buying in stores just prior to the storm where people clear the shelves of all manner of items such as bread and milk and other staples.

    I would hazard a guess that it’s worse in the northeast US because they are unused to weather extremes. They don’t get earthquakes or typhoons and rarely massive snowfalls. In places where people do see such things on a regular basis, panic buying seems to be more common among the less well off, people who don’t have the money to prepare ahead of time (e.g. New Orleans). It’s a failure of businesses to pay a living wage, not a “failure of citizenship” as Newt Gingrich ignorantly said.

    Taiwan is usually very prepared for earthquakes and typhoons, but not this. I only own a heater because I was here in 2005, the last time it was this cold. Here’s a rare bit of good news and common decency:


    Terry Gou donates NT$10 million to buy winter comforters for needy

    Taipei, Jan. 23 (CNA) Terry Gou, chairman of Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. Saturday donated NT$10 million (US$296,736) to buy comforters for those in need as Taiwan was hit by the worst cold spell in a decade.

    Gou is the founder of the YongLin Healthcare Foundation, a Taiwanese charity.

    The donation will be used to buy winter comforters such as quilts and sleeping bags for those in need, the foundation said.

    Cheaper quilts sell for NT$800-1500, so that money will go a long way.

  12. lorn says

    The odds of any one area suffering road closures for more than a couple of days is remote but it does happen. My folks had a home deep in suburbia and after a hurricane roads were blocked by fallen trees and power lines. It took ten days for the roads to be cleared. Local authorities claimed concentrated on the main roads and seemed to have forgotten a few smaller roads that snaked through the woods to a few smaller housing complexes. Fortunately the people combined resources and were generally well stocked before the storm so nobody really suffered much but still … it was ten days.

  13. Lofty says

    People really have trouble planning for emergencies, I guess they just get very complacent if they haven’t been snowed in before. It’s like carrying drinking water in your car, people get that really dumb look when I suggest that they should carry a gallon or so of clean potable water. If the car overheats you can feed it in the radiator, if the engine’s stuffed it’ll keep you from getting terribly thirsty.

    I suppose that after this snow storm all the garbage bins will be full of moldy bread, because no-one knew what to do with it.

  14. Who Cares says

    Marcus Ranum said:

    (* WTF above ground power, anyway? When the Europeans did their great spate of redecorating and renovation called “WWII” they were smart enough to bury the power!)

    Not really. Most power transmission here is still above ground. Only when it reaches edges of cities and they drop the voltage to 50KV/10KV does it go underground. What we do have on the 150KV+ lines is redundancy. In most of the places that is, had a nice little accident with a chopper here (Netherlands) a few years back that just happened to takeout a pylon on the only leg of the high voltage net that wasn’t connected on both sides. And that redundancy is there because of weather, those pylons can take a lot but ice is heavy.

  15. EigenSprocketUK says

    Seconding Marcus’s comment: higher gear makes for lower torque. This works two ways. You are less likely to spin the wheels accelerating. And, crucially, if you lift your foot from the accelerator then there is less engine drag.

    Most cars are two-wheel drive, so all that engine drag is applied to the two driving wheels. When you use your brakes (slowing down as gently as you would do with engine braking), the braking force is spread over four wheels, not two. This makes it less likely that one of the wheels will start to slip and put the whole system out of balance.

    ABS is truly amazing at what it does, but it’s seldom much use once you’re sliding or yawing on a loose surface because it can only release the brake momentarily from one or more individual wheels in the hope that the wheel / wheels can re-match velocity and regain grip. The direction of the velocity it hopes to regain is, obviously, only dead ahead. ABS also has to infer from all four wheels what the true velocity is. When all four wheels are sliding, possibly at different rates, ABS has no idea which wheel is measuring the correct speed.

    In snow, you’d be well advised to drive like you’re transporting loose eggs on the roof of your car and have only got bald tyres and the brakes from a bicycle.

  16. says

    EigenSprocketUK (#16) --

    I haven’t driven a car in 16 years and I still remember how to deal with winter driving. And yes, ABS sucks on ice. Those who know how can make use of power slides and other techniques. “Driver aids” are made for less skillful drivers, and are sometimes a detriment to those who have the skills.

    The two things most people never learn (or can’t make themselves do) about winter driving are:

    (1) Steer into the slide and lift off the gas. Most people panic steer and floor it. They either keep sliding, or they regain grip and become an unguided missile in another direction.

    (2) Steer where the other are *IS*, not where it’s going. When a car skids into their path (left to right) most people turn right to try and avoid it. That’s bad enough on dry roads, worse on snow and ice. If you steer where it is, you will drive to an empty space and the other car will miss you.

    Just as important, if a crash is inevitable, go straight. Legally, you’ll be less at fault even if you were skidding. If it’s another driver skidding into your path, you will hit that car instead of wiping out an uninvolved bystander (car or pedestrian). And your car is strongest head on, weaker on the corners and sides. It’s the safest place to hit something.

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