The Lost Week: A Winter Adventure

   Last month a polar vortex wandered down into the southern regions of the United States, where it met moisture-laden air from the Gulf of Mexico. Together, these two systems dropped a multitude of winter weather on areas that, unlike America’s Heartland, are unequipped to handle ice and snow. My life, and the lives of my family members, were disrupted by this February winter event, which resulted for us in the Lost Week.*

Forecasters warned us well in advance that winter weather was coming. They knew all about the polar vortex, the Gulf moisture, and the winter weather the two would produce. Usually this mix happens further north, in states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri. Those states know how to handle winter weather. But ice and snow are rare in the southern states; when they occur, they usually melt the next day. Prolonged cold temperatures are unusual; prolonged cold temperatures with winter precipitation are even more unusual. Central Arkansas had gone more than one thousand days without measurable winter precipitation before this winter weather event. As a result, states and counties and municipalities invest little money in snow removal and other ways to handle winter precipitation.

On Wednesday February 10th, we were all talking about the upcoming winter event and the likelihood of weather-related closures during the coming days. Some freezing rain fell and hardened on cold surfaces that night and the next morning. In Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, road crews would have salted the roads and bridges even before the rain began, and all roads would have been open Thursday morning. Instead, for the safety of their workers and of those whom they serve, schools and offices and most other businesses closed for the day that Thursday. Although no precipitation was added Thursday night or Friday morning, the temperature remained below freezing. Some places remained closed on Friday, while others (including my employer) opened late and allowed us to work for a few hours.

Heavy snow was expected to begin some time on Sunday. Meanwhile, temperatures had remained below freezing all day Saturday. As a result, churches canceled their Sunday services (or followed the online protocol they had been using for the past eleven months). Snowfall did not begin until evening, but already closings were announced for Monday. Less than an inch of snow had fallen by Monday morning’s usual travel time, but it continued to snow all day. About ten inches accumulated during that Monday snowfall. The snow was light and fluffy, easily moved by shovel. Interstates were kept open through the day, but side streets and rural routes, having received no winter treatment, were impassible.

I have experienced winter weather driving before. My Driver’s Education in high school took place during one of the snowiest winters of northern Illinois history. A few scattered days of classes were canceled that month, but we were rarely off two days in a row. Some years later I attended a meeting in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago, living at that time in the southeastern corner of the city. It took about an hour to cross the city to get to the meeting. Around lunchtime, snow began to fall. Plows and other weather treatment vehicles were stuck in traffic as they tried to deal with snow that evening. It took me seven hours on the road to return home. At one point, on the Interstate, I saw three eighteen-wheel trucks side by side, spinning their wheels on a slight incline, blocking three lanes of pointing the opposite direction form which I was heading. The total snowfall from that storm was 9.7 inches. When I got home, I thought surely school would be closed the next day, but I was wrong. Overnight they cleaned up the mess, and in the morning all roads were open and life had returned to normal—business as usual.

Two of my daughters shared an apartment on the west side of town. They chose February 17 of this year to move to a new apartment on the north side. Both had recently taken jobs on the north side, and their new apartment is also closer to my house. Therefore, they had packed many boxes and left them in my house to make moving day easier. Both daughters work in the health care field. One, who works in a hospital, saw the forecast and decided to take a motel room Sunday and Monday nights, sharing and splitting the cost with a coworker. The other, who works weekend nights, followed a normal schedule and managed to make it to work Sunday in spite of the beginning snowfall. Monday, she drove from work to the old apartment, but got stuck on a hill about a quarter of a mile from the apartment. She walked the rest of the way and let us know, by text and phone call, about her situation. Since we had cleared much of the driveway Monday afternoon, we volunteered to rescue us from her apartment—and, if possible, to free her car—Tuesday afternoon. Although my car was nearly stuck on another hill near her apartment that afternoon, we managed to free both cars and to bring her to our place, along with three cats and a dog, who were welcomed (with some hospitality and some apprehension) by our two cats. The other daughter then came to our place from work Tuesday afternoon. With more snow forecast for Wednesday, they agreed to postpone their truck rental and put off the bulk of their move for an undetermined number of days.

Eight more inches of snow fell on Wednesday—again, mostly during the day. Streets and roads that had not been cleared now had double the obstruction. Where people tried to drive and spun their wheels, they often created sheets of polished ice rather than clearing their way down to the pavement. Some used sand or cat litter to try to gain traction. (Sand is a good idea; cat litter not so much—it’s mostly clay, which is also slippery once it gets wet.) Others took the floor mats from inside their cars and, putting them at their tires, managed to get their vehicles moving. My daughters managed to get a key to their new apartment and move some of their boxes out of our place, but they and their dog and cats remained refugees staying with us.

Meanwhile, my son lives in Texas. Like many other people in Texas, he lost power and water. He endured the deprivation for a few days, but then sought relief from us. After Wednesday’s snow, the main highways were beginning to open, so he grabbed both his cats and some perishable groceries and drove north to our place.

My son is an engineer. Living in Texas, he also heard information that was not shared nationwide and was able to understand what it meant. The power failure in Texas was due to solar power and wind power being disabled by winter weather. Texas utility governments petitioned the federal government for permission to burn fossil fuels using available technology, but they were denied permission because of the danger of carbon emissions and their contribution to global warming. Although other factors played a part in the Texas troubles, the stubbornness of federal bureaucracy played a significant role in worsening the winter weather crisis experienced by residents of the state of Texas.

At its peak, then, our house provided food and shelter for three human refugees along with a total of seven cats and a dog. My workplace was closed all five days of the third week of February. My daughters’ truck rental happened a week later than planned, although they did eventually get themselves, their pets, and their belongings into their new place. My son finally left for Texas yesterday.

It might be years before we face another winter weather event like this in the south. It’s fair to say that no lessons were learned, that no further provisions will be made to successfully cope with ice and snow in the future. Church services were canceled two straight Sundays, and even with all that extra “time off,” I had little success working on writing plans or other special projects. My “to-do” list is longer now than it was a month ago. But the snow has melted, the roads are open again, and life goes on. J.

*The Lost Week is a local joke (which I used at work to satisfying results) referring to the Lost Year of 1958-1959. The Lost Year followed the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, a historic event accompanied by street protests and federal troops. In the summer of 1958, the state government unwisely acted to prevent a repeat of that performance by closing all the high schools in Little Rock. That school year, when high school students had to miss a year of school or find alternate sources of education, is known in Arkansas history as the Lost Year.

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