Perhaps it's the terminology: Snowmaggeddon. The White Death. Bomb Cyclone. Polar Vortex.
No matter the language or when a prediction is made, warnings of impending snow drive people to grocery stores to stock up on food and beverages to make sure they have enough while they're locked down on their own accords.
Shelves quickly go bare, and sometimes prices go up.
In January 2018, a "bomb cyclone" trapped the U.S. East Coast in a deep freeze. "Bomb cyclone" is the easier term for "explosive cyclogenesis", which was created back in the 1970s. It's a weather event that's actually sort of common — a predominantly maritime winter event that just hasn't affected people on land enough to be all that well-known.
Regardless, the use of this term in early 2018 drove lots of people to the stores, stocking up on the basics and comfort foods in order to be hunkered down and ride it out. There were snowfall accumulations of more than 2 feet in some northern, coastal states and in Canada. But it had already been super cold for several days prior and the warning of the bomb cyclone was an early one.
It's not to be taken lightly: 22 people died in the storm. Several businesses and schools closed down.
But in essence, it was a short ordeal: The storm moved in and out of the entire coastal region in fewer than 48 hours and media hugely publicized that it was coming.
As the northeast braces for another winter blast this weekend, Jan. 12-13, stores are again seeing shoppers clearing the shelves in anticipation of being stuck at home.
Wow @tescos’s shelves and fridges are empty. Of the very limited food i can eat, i bought 2 things.
— Alexandra ♿️ (@AlexandraRants) January 11, 2019
Why Americans tend to worry about food ahead of storms
Aside from the obvious in which folks in rural areas could face days of not leaving their homes after heavy snow and ice storms, panic mode is a real issue that has historic merit. The Blizzard of 1978 that walloped the northeastern states caused people to be stuck for weeks. That stays in mind for some.
In 1950, there was a crippling snowstorm in Pittsburgh that left many without food essentials. Psychologically, these past events drive people to want to make sure they have more than enough to stay well-fed and have a variety of foods while they are tied to their home base. The mentality truly is, "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me."
Lessons were learned in the past, and in 2019, people are still driven by the fear of bare pantries during significant snowstorm — even if what's coming their way is a couple of inches. The historic storms were giant and happened in times when weather prediction wasn't so advanced, and not everyone had technology to communicate.
PsychCentral.com says the bread-and-milk rush that still happens today is driven somewhat by "herd mentality" in which a very small percentage of people influence a larger crowd's direction. The crowd follows without realizing it. If others are getting the necessities, then we must, also.
Today, we get ample alerts from weather authorities with lots of time to prepare, and there is planning in place to clear roadways in most regions. Food stores and pharmacies plan ahead, too.
The need to rush to a grocery store may not be as warranted these days. But don't rely on food delivery drivers to make it to a home's front door, either.