Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Winter Weather in the South

"What, they cancelled school for that?"

"Why is everyone panicking?"

"It's just a little snow, and not even that much, and you'd think the world was about to end!"

"Once they've bought all the bread and milk, what are they going to DO with it, anyway?"

So goes the litany from my Northern friends when we have a "winter weather event" in the South.  Confession: I used to be one of the people saying those things.  I grew up in Western New York.  You know, the Buffalo area.  Grew up sliding all over town in my Dad's Ford LTD (light blue with the dark blue vinyl top) and my Mom's Olds Delta 88 (black on black with a red velour interior).  Went to college in Rochester.  I know something about cold and snowy weather!

I've been in North Carolina 11 1/2 years now.  Married a native.  Not leaving.

For the first couple years I was here, I, too, laughed at the Southern panic surrounding snow.  If Buffalo shut down every time it snowed, nothing would happen from October to April.

Now I've been here awhile, and I've come to understand a few things, which may help my Northern friends understand the reaction around snow in my new Southern home.

One, winter weather is a rare occurrence, not a recurring one.  It means that a much smaller percentage of our public works budget goes to snow removal down here than yours does.  We don't have fleets of snowplows and salt trucks.  No huge city barns filled with salt.

Two, southern snow is different than northern snow.  A lot of times, our snow events happen somewhere near freezing, meaning that we get a lot of sleet, freezing rain, and ice mixed in.  I can drive in snow with the best of them.  Not much I can do on ice!

Three, and for that matter, though I know what I'm doing on a winter road, I can't guarantee that the person behind, beside, in front of, or in the oncoming lane does.  Remember, it's a rare occurrence - they're not used to it!  I'd rather not share the road with that level of unpredictability in the mix.

Four, many times cold winter weather comes on the heels of warmer weather.  Yesterday, it snowed.  The day before, it was in the 60s.  So, relatively warm road, still. Snow falls on it.  Melts.  Temperatures continue to fall. Melted snow turns to ice.  No salt trucks.  Bad roads.

Five, many of our school systems are county-wide.  There are often very different weather patterns from one side of the county to the other, or conditions that are quite different in remote or outlying areas than "in town."  Sometimes, we call school off for a day when we don't end up having any snow.  Sounds embarrassing, right?  But when it comes to the safety of other people's children, I think it's better to err on the side of caution.

When I lived in Boone, North Carolina, up in the mountains, I asked the superintendent of schools about what it was like to make the call to cancel school a full day ahead of time, and whether it was embarrassing to have a snow day when it ended up being in the 40s and sunny.

The response was telling: "We always err on the side of caution.  Sure that means that sometimes we miss it, and have a snow day on a day we could have still had school.  But, it means we also don't have school on a day when we shouldn't.  Things may be fine in town, but out in the western part of the county - on shaded, windy, mountain roads - who knows?  I would rather be the superintendent who decided to close schools on a day when everything was fine and be ridiculed for that, than the one who decided to keep schools open and have a schoolbus full of other people's kids go careening off the side of a mountain somewhere in the county.  I'll make that call every time."

Six, we have a lot of big cities down here.  That means people.  And traffic.  You saw what happened in Atlanta yesterday - how the whole city shut down - gridlock, abandoned cars, shut down highways, people spending the night in their cars, schools, churches, and the homes of strangers.

Think about that, combined with the other factors we've already mentioned.  Little equipment to remove snow and ice.  Not just snow, but usually ice.  Quick glazing once it hits the road.  Everybody on the road at the same time, trying to get home/pick up the kids/whatever.  What little snow removal equipment there is - stuck in traffic just like everyone else.  The whole place turns into a big skating rink, and no one can go anywhere.

I know, from your vantage point, it looks ridiculous.  An unnecessary panic.  A poorly-managed response. Simply know that the situation is different down here, as are the preparedness and resources of both government and the population.

I know you're driving 70 down the Kensington Expressway in whiteout conditions, a cup of coffee in one hand, while you reach out and slap the windshield wiper with the other, honking for everyone to get out of your way because you're going to be late for the Sabres game, having a good laugh at how 1/4 of snow can bring the south to its knees.

It used to give me a chuckle, as well.

Just know it's different here.

When March gets here and you're still shoveling, come on down for a weeklong visit, and bring your shorts.  We promise not to make fun of your pasty white legs.

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