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Winter storm wish list

January 14, 2011

It’s been a week and a half around here. That is, the past four days have felt like ten. Among other things, I’ve been wishing my cross-country ski boots weren’t lost in the attic and that I’d thought to buy bacon and dishwasher detergent. There was also the constant worry that the electricity would go off or a pipe would burst, forcing evacuation and lopping billable hours off the week. The cat and I are both thrilled to have dodged those bullets one more time.

While our local TV news teams treat every measurable snowfall and every ice storm like the Weather Event of the Century, we actually get one or two a year and they are generally over within 72 hours or less. The result: we know what to do with snow and slush on the ground for a couple of days, and we’re completely gob smacked if it freezes solid and sticks around.

This week brought a hefty one-two-three punch. Instead of the typical sleet turning to snow, looking pretty for a while and melting away in a day or two, we got six inches and more of snow topped by several hours of sleet, followed by days of sub-freezing temperatures. Instead of reeling with delight at an unexpected long weekend, we were knocked flat, getting a real taste of what winter is like farther north.

The weather is finally warming up now and things will get back to normal, and a lot of people had fun along the way. But the whole thing was more inconvenient and more dangerous than it needed to be. Poor judgment abounds, as always, but in lots of cases people simply don’t know any better. Getting through sub-freezing weather in good shape calls for certain knowledge and skills that many folks around here understandably lack.  One of my wishes is for local TV stations to spend part of the time allocated to weather coverage providing information that’s actually useful. For example:

  • The  thawing/re-freezing cycle means road (and sidewalk) conditions will get worse before they get better. Anything that doesn’t melt away will re-freeze harder and slicker. If it doesn’t all go away by the third day, we Georgians need to be told what to do. Over and over.
  • There are many good reasons, aside from personal safety, for staying off the roads until they’ve been cleared by public works or Mother Nature. The fewer vehicles that are out there, the safer it is for those who must be. Obviously, some people will have compelling reasons for driving somewhere, but “we just had to get out of the house” (cited by a driver interviewed on a local newscast this week) doesn’t qualify. Every vehicle abandoned on or beside the road becomes a hazard to others and an obstacle to snow and ice removal. And the more vehicles that seem to be out there moving around, the more likely others will be to throw caution to the wind and join them, compounding the problems. These hazards cannot be repeated too clearly or too often.
  • You cannot see black ice and therefore you cannot avoid it – only experience teaches you where to anticipate it and what to do when you encounter it. Too many Southern drivers know only that it’s a scary, dangerous thing and so they try to drive fast to get away from it, or slam on brakes attempting to avoid it.
  • If you must drive, clear the snow from all of your vehicle windows and the roof, hood, trunk – wherever it accumulated. It will eventually loosen and tumble off, imperiling any driver in the vicinity (maybe even you — slam on brakes and that chunk of snow will slide right off your roof and explode on your windshield, completely obscuring your vision).
  • Clear the sidewalks in front of your house at the earliest opportunity, before the snow softens and re-freezes into solid ice. (In some places up north, failing to do so is a code violation.) If you don’t have a snow shovel, a straight-edged garden shovel will serve. Absent either one, knock on the door of a neighbor whose walks are cleared and ask to borrow whatever implement they used. If you’re able-bodied, look for a neighbor who isn’t and clear their walks, too. If your house is infested with children aged 10 and up, put them to work shoveling so they can practice community service or earn some pocket-money, or both. Fresh air and exercise for them, a little peace and quiet for you, clear sidewalks for the neighbors — everybody wins.

I also wish our local and state governments would share actual costs of snow and ice removal from streets and highways. With all the griping this week about our public works departments being unprepared for ice and snow, I have to wonder how many of the whiners choose to invest their personal resources in snow blowers, snow tires and the like, against the remote possibility of a week like this. The agencies are making cost-benefit decisions in a constantly changing environment and I would be interested to know how those decisions link to actual budget information, and see examples of things we would have to forfeit later if we reflexively throw money at what is actually a temporary situation.

I guess what I’m really wishing for is a little more effort, led by the local media and our public officials, to foster community spirit and encourage us all to cultivate patience and self-sufficiency in the face of the elements. I’ll keep wishing, but I won’t hold my breath. Meanwhile, I’ll keep searching for those ski boots, and add bacon to the standard winter storm shopping list.

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