Friday, January 8, 2010

Snow in the Triangle

According to local news media this morning, some 220 schools, businesses, and organizations in the North Carolina Triangle area are operating on a two-hour delay or have decided not to open at all today. This is because the weather forecast yesterday evening was for the possibility of "a light dusting to one inch of snow." Thanks to this advance warning, everyone went out and bought milk and bread, the two staples no Southerner wants to be caught without when an inch of snow falls.

Just after the first flakes appeared at 10:30 p.m. (so the rumors say), an unexpected surge of warm air blew in, with the consequence that there's no snow on the ground this morning (see photo above). Fret not: there are a few icy patches on outlying country roads. These patches have caused some drivers to skid, justifying the two-hour delays to work, school, and the local economy.

One reason for the flurry of cancellations and delays is that two or three times a decade, rather than overestimating winter precipitation, forecasters underestimate it, and the world as we know it grinds to a halt. Our first year in North Carolina, we heard stories about the legendary Blizzard of '00. With voices full of awe and eyes wide, friends described how the city shut down, immobilized under a blanket of snow for two solid weeks.

Generally, massively disruptive local events like blizzards, floods, and the invasion of giant cockroaches occur when S is not around, a trend that began with the Great Ice Storm of '02. S had been gone for a few days--at the Materials Research Society conference in sunny Boston, I do believe--when Triangle meteorologists started mentioning the possibility of snow. As the inclement weather approached, the forecast became more specific: sleet, Tuesday, 3 p.m. Citizens were advised to get their bread and milk before the doomsday hour.

I was holed up in a coffee shop near campus, grading essays. As the drizzle transformed into tiny pellets of hail, a murmur spread through the room. I sipped on my decaf latte and shook my head, wondering, with the smugness of a transplanted Midwesterner, why a little ice was such a big deal in the South. When the sleet became snow, I headed back to the office, where I was intercepted by an anxious receptionist: my son's daycare had closed early, and I needed to pick him up three hours ago.

The freeway was clogged, not by the snow but by drivers who were perplexed by the curious white stuff. A drive that usually took ten minutes took an hour. When I arrived at Kidspace, E and the daycare director were the only two people left in the normally bustling building. I apologized for being late and said something about regional weather differences, and then E and I went home and continued life as usual. Play time, dinner, a toddler's bedtime routine.

I went to bed shortly after the transformer box near our house exploded. All night long, I listened to the sounds outside. ShhhhhhhhhhhHHHHH--BANG...shhhhhhhhhHHHHH--BANG. I thought it was ice sliding off our steep metal roof and crashing onto the driveway, but it turned out to be branches falling off trees all over town. When we got up in the morning, the power was out.

I called my parents in Illinois. "We're fine," I told them. "Don't worry about what you hear on the news. People here get overexcited about real winter weather." I hung up, and then a huge branch fell off the tree in the front yard and knocked out the phone line. (That's the branch, to the right; of course, I forgot to take a photo of it before all the ice melted.)

E and I bundled up and went outside, where we met bewildered neighbors in the street. Every surface was coated in a thick layer of ice, radiant and beautiful in the bright morning sunlight. No one had power. Falling branches had punched holes in roofs; toppling trees had raised great mounds of earth as the weight of the ice pulled them up by their roots. Streets were impassable.

Ice storms build community. That evening, everyone on the block gathered at the home of the only neighbors with a wood-burning stove. I borrowed another neighbor's telephone and called American Airlines to ask whether my husband had boarded his flight home; the sympathetic operator violated post-9/11 security policies and confirmed that he had. S returned home to a ravaged town with no street lights and a mandatory curfew.

Some friends camped out in offices at the university (a prosperous private institution with its own backup generators), while other friends left town. We alternated between sleeping at home and bumming shelter from friends with power.

Our house had warm water but, for six days, no heat or electricity. Our old-fashioned radiators ran on a gas boiler, but our thermostat was electric. S kept the fish in our aquarium alive by filling milk bottles with warm water and floating them in the tank.

After the world thawed, S went down to the basement and wired two car batteries and an AC/DC converter to the thermostat switch and the fish tank power supply, so they'd have backup power the next time there was a blackout. That's the engineer's version of going out to buy bread and milk.

Is it overreacting for several counties to delay the start of school, twelve hours in advance, due to the possibility of a light dusting of snow? In the car on the way to school, E and his friend D tried to explain their unexpected windfall this morning. "Maybe people are just dumb," suggested D, fresh off a visit to Connecticut, where she saw life continue as usual despite two feet of snow. "Or maybe," she conceded, "they were worried there might be ice on the roads." We'll make Southerners of these kids yet.

No comments: