Learn­ing to ex­pect the un­ex­pected

The Southern Gazette - - Editorial - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 36 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@thetele­gram.com Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

There are train horns in the dis­tance, and strange birds whose calls sound laser-sharp in the still air here. And there is snow. It’s a calamity.

The gover­nor of North Carolina de­clared a state of emer­gency over snow that came on a re­cent Satur­day night, a sit­u­a­tion that con­tin­ued well into the fol­low­ing Tues­day as night­time tem­per­a­tures caused - gasp - black ice.

In New­found­land terms, there wasn’t re­ally that much snow: not even the 20-plus cen­time­tres that we got two Thurs­days ago in St. John’s, along with the 10 or 15 into Sun­day and the next round that came Tues­day into Wed­nes­day. (At this point, given what they have on the ground, peo­ple in cen­tral New­found­land and the west coast can roll their eyes at the townie pre­cious­ness of those num­bers.)

But in North Carolina, it was a near-calamity. Over 2,000 au­to­mo­bile col­li­sions. Power cut off to tens of thou­sands of peo­ple. The need for res­cues from iso­lated pow­er­less ar­eas by emer­gency ser­vices.

Even three days af­ter the storm, the scroll across the bot­tom of the tele­vi­sion screen of closed schools and busi­nesses was con­stant. Even three days af­ter the storm, plows hadn’t reached many sec­ondary roads. Air traf­fic was mas­sively dis­rupted.

I walked to a grocery store in Cary, N.C., to get gro­ceries on Sun­day. It was the only day in the big storm that I ac­tu­ally had to wear my boots. Since then, sneak­ers have been fine. Four peo­ple at the grocery store asked me if the weather out­side was get­ting any bet­ter. Two told me they hoped to get off work be­fore it got dark and colder and more dan­ger­ous. The gover­nor told a news con­fer­ence that snow may be pretty, “but it’s dan­ger­ous.”

This is not a col­umn about how much more stolid and pre­pared Cana­di­ans are for a lit­tle bit of snow. Far from it; this is more about how in­sti­tu­tion­ally un­pre­pared we all are for even the small­est kind of changes in the weather.

Our snow this year is a lit­tle ear­lier than in some years, but it’s snow like we get most years. We have the equip­ment, we’ve driven in the stuff be­fore, the smart and pre­pared among us have snow tires and drive de­fen­sively. The plows will get on the road, we’ll com­plain about how slow the cleanup is and how other mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties al­ways do a bet­ter job, and we’ll shovel and sweat in our win­ter coats and go to work.

It’s dif­fer­ent if you don’t have enough plows, and if a weak­en­ing in the jet stream means plung­ing pulses of Arc­tic air are now more likely to fin­ger down from the north and slap 15 cen­time­tres on driv­ers for whom that’s a sort of freez­ing end of days.

But we’re not ex­actly im­mune be­cause Cary, N.C., is pre­pared for things that we aren’t. Most of the mod­el­ling that is look­ing at what we can ex­pect in New­found­land and Labrador in the not-so-dis­tant fu­ture in­volves stronger storms reach­ing fur­ther north from the east coast of the U.S., car­ry­ing rad­i­cally more mois­ture that will be dropped in far shorter time pe­ri­ods than we cur­rently ex­pect. IDF charts - they mea­sure in­ten­sity, du­ra­tion and fre­quency of rain have been sig­nif­i­cantly re­drawn for many parts of our prov­ince, mean­ing there are now flood plains where there weren’t be­fore, and mu­nic­i­pal and high­way sys­tems may not be pre­pared for the wa­ter flows that are go­ing to oc­cur.

And those IDF num­bers are con­tin­u­ing to in­crease. Don­ald Trump may want to build a wall to keep il­le­gal im­mi­grants out of the U.S., but we have to build a dirt wall just to keep flood­ing from shut­ting down the prov­ince’s largest and most im­por­tant hos­pi­tal.

So back to Cary, N.C. Cary’s been fac­ing those high IDF num­bers for years. You’d be amazed, though, if you saw a Cary storm drain. Ours are the usual grate that gets blocked with leaves or snow. Cary’s are open gaps in the curb some four feet long and four inches high. It’s hard to even imag­ine the amounts of wa­ter they can swal­low up be­fore streets over­flow. (Even so, the new re­al­ity of weather saw a hur­ri­cane this spring pretty much in­un­date the eastern part of the state.)

I guess what I’m say­ing is that un­even and un­ex­pected weather causes many more prob­lems than han­dling the sorts of pre­cip­i­ta­tion that we’ve al­ways had.

In­fra­struc­ture doesn’t turn on a dime. And things are chang­ing. For Cary and western North Carolina, that means an in­cred­i­ble amount of snow-re­lated dam­age from a sin­gle un­likely storm. For us, it could well be sig­nif­i­cant flood­ing be­yond the range of what we can han­dle right now. For both, it’s sit­u­a­tions we’re not yet pre­pared for.

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