Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Perfect Storm

I freely admit to being a Weather Weenie. I proudly tell people I haven’t had to clear the snow from my roof in 16 years, and I respond to complaints about Britain’s famously dreary weather with the boring but true observation of, “I don’t have to shovel drizzle.” The idea of spending another winter in conditions similar to Upstate New York is not something that inspires warm nostalgia, and I have been grateful for the past five or six years of agreeably mild winters.

Still, I wouldn’t have minded going through some of what happened to the rest of country this past week. I’m not a masochist, but it seems like a missed opportunity.

Here’s what happened:

This winter has been agreeably mild, as well. It would be cold for a few days, then it would go into the 50s or 60s, then we’d have some cold, rainy weather, followed by a string of 50-degree days. It was, in short, a normal winter, and spring was already within our grasp. Crocus, snow drops, even daffodils were blooming, trees were budding, and the air smelled of damp earth and the promise of new growth. It was lovely.

But we are Brits, and we love to complain about the weather, often to hyperbolic degrees, therefore, when an “Arctic Blast” was predicted for last week, I figured we’d just get a few days of chilly weather before, once again, enjoying more spring-like days. I wasn’t alone in thinking this: the weather is so routinely dramatized that many of us were surprised by just how cold the Arctic Blast –dubbed The Beast From the East (the Brits do love word-play)—was.

When it gets down to Zero here, that’s just 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and I don’t consider that cold. It rarely does get down to freezing, by the way, and when it does, it doesn’t stay there for long. This Arctic air, however, brought the temps down into the low 20s F, which is cold by anyone’s definition, and they stayed there, day and night, which, in my experience, is unprecedented.

This resulted in the ground freezing and ice forming on puddles and ponds. I know you people from back home are reading this thinking, “Yeah, so what?” but there are school-aged children here that have never seen ice in the wild.

The cold caused some disruptions because we’re not used to it being that cold for that long. Then, after a few days, something unexpected happened: Storm Emma came up from the south, met the cold air from Siberia, and the snow started.

Storm Emma meets The Beast From the East.
No, it's not a WWE Wrestling match, it's what happened this week,
with a helpful hand to explain it all.
I’ve seen it snow here before. I’ve even seen it snow a significant amount (meaning two or three inches), which would wreak havoc and cause panic for a few hours until it melted. But those incidents, in addition to being ephemeral, were also localized, so it was only one bit of the country struggling while the rest got on with their day.

This storm, however, covered the entire British Isles, dumping snow—as much as a foot and a half in places—over England, Wales, Scotland (but they’re used to it) and Ireland. The frozen ground kept the snow from melting, as did the frigid temperatures and the bitter, driving wind. What resulted was a New York Style winter, visited upon a land with a traditionally mild climate. The results were predictable.

Major roads were closed; people spent the night in their cars.
Trains stopped running, trapping people in cold, stationary carriages for hours. Roads became blocked, trapping people in their cars, sometimes over night. Airports cancelled flights or shut down completely, stranding thousands of people who couldn’t get to their destination, or go back home due to the weather.

Farmers struggled to keep their herds fed, watered and, in the case of dairy farmers, milked. To add to their misery, the daily milking had no place to go as the trucks couldn’t get to the farms, so the farmers had to dump the milk. People who could get to shops found them empty, and unable to re-stock. And at least one baby was born in a stranded car.

You generally expect to see drifts like this in Upstate New York
But people came out to help. They brought food and water to stranded travelers, they cleared snow, pulled cars out of snowdrifts, services—hospitals, police, social workers and even the people who fix your gas heating—made heroic efforts to continue running and get to people in need. A man booked a string of hotel rooms so homeless people could sleep someplace warm. They struggled, but they persevered.

During all this, I learned (there has been NOTHING on the news except reports about the weather all week) that Sussex, where I live, has been the least effected county in the country, and I’m a little bit disappointed by that.

This is the extent of our winter storm.
We’ve been, at best, inconvenienced. We have had only a dusting of snow, which made the roads slippery for a while. You can get to the shops, and there’s plenty of whatever it is you want to buy there. The trains are running (and for Southern Rail, they are running as well as they usually do, which is not very well), the roads aren’t closed, no one is stranded anywhere nearby, and we even had choir practice during the worst of it.

We’ve been lucky, but I can’t help feeling, as I watch the misery in other parts of the country, that we’ve missed out on something special, a chance to step up to a challenge, to prove ourselves in the face adversity, to re-live a little of that Blitz Spirit. Instead, we’ve just hunkered down, complained about the cold and gone about our business.

In years to come, when talk turns to the great winter storm of 2018, everyone else will have an unending supply of snowstorm-from-hell stories to tell, while all we’ll be able to do is say, “Yeah, I remember; it got cold for a while.”

Snow: it's a bitch, but it can be pretty.

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