Learning to expect the unexpected
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.