Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dancing the Snowpocalypso: The Blizzards of February

Considering Washington DC and Baltimore got 30” of snow, 16” of snow on my front porch (see right) doesn't seem like much. President Obama referred to it as "Snowmageddon" while others called it "Snowpocalypse."

Someone said we broke the record earlier this morning for "The Snowiest February," set back in 1893. I don't remember that one... but I think I will remember this one. The second storm in four days started last night and I just checked: so far, 13" and it's not supposed to stop until this evening.

Having a next-door neighbor who cleared my driveway with his snow-blower (which I've nicknamed “Moses,” for its parting of the White Sea) certainly helped ease the impact of the first storm. I had nothing to go to over the weekend so the idea of sitting snuggly in my living room, wrapped in cats and listening to the Met broadcast of Verdi's “Simon Boccanegra” was a pleasant use of my time (fortunately, I hadn't planned on schlogging my way out to the local movie palace to see their HD transmission of the opera).

Looking out at the back yard (see left), watching the birds coming in to the feeder, was refreshing, reminding me how beautiful a snow scene can be - as long as I didn't have to go to work in it or deal with a concert. It's unfortunate that Market Square Concerts' CD Release Party with cellist Zuill Bailey scheduled for tonight has been postponed - driving there would've been one thing, parking in-town quite another. But as this storm is developing, I have no qualms in saying "Sorry, I'm not leaving my house"...

It's not that the northeastern part of the United States isn't used to the occasional big snow storms.

When I was going to grad school in Rochester, NY, famous (along with Buffalo) for heavy snowfalls mostly from “Lake Effect Snow” which people usually pronounce as if it's not “real snow” despite the fact it still has to be shoveled, we joked about the region's two seasons: Winter and the 4th of July. We got 14” of snow one day then had a day where the high was in the mid-40s so much of it would melt, followed the next day by another foot of snow. I remember being able to figure out how cold it was as I left my apartment for my eight block walk into the school: if I had to zip up my coat, it was 10° or less. If my mustache froze by the time I reached the Chinese Restaurant half way to school, it was probably 0°. One morning, my mustache froze as I stepped off my porch: it was -8° when I passed the time-and-temperature clock a block from the school. Yet somehow you get used to this, after a while.

Another great storm was one in February 1978 when I was teaching at the University of Connecticut. This was the blizzard that collapsed the roof of the relatively new Coliseum in downtown Hartford just a few hours after a UConn basketball game, there. I remember huddling in one room of the apartment with my roommate (so we could conserve heat if we'd lose power) listening to the howling wind all night. One of the movies we watched on TV was something called "Bug," one of the worst films I've ever seen, about incendiary cockroaches attacking California. This storm was the first time they actually closed the campus and suspended all classes: in 15 minutes, the grocery store near the Fine Arts buildings was sold out of beer. When I finally got in to my office, the snow had drifted so high the two-story Fine Arts Building looked like a single story. My office window on the first floor was completely blocked by snow for about a week. I remember sleeping there for 3 nights to avoid the roads: talk about cabin fever...

And it's not like we haven't gotten hit by successive storms in the past, here, either.

The (in)famous Winter of 1996 saw numerous storms waving across the mid-state – the first storm had almost 2' feet of snow and was followed a few days later by a storm that measured around a foot, as I recall. But then successive Wednesdays saw weekly blizzards until by January 20th or so we'd gotten about 80” in total snowfall. There was no place to put the snow when you tried to shovel your car out or clear your sidewalk. I would sit in my living room and watch hats struggle past because that was all you could see: the sidewalk, so narrow you had to walk sideways to get through, was like a trench cut five or six feet into the snow.

And that was before the January Thaw. It could've been just another blizzard but it was so mild, it was just rain. Lots of rain, enough to cause one of the worst floods in Harrisburg since Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Part of the old iron trestle bridge (the Walnut Street Bridge, known since before my childhood days as “Old Shaky”) crinkled into a heap of scrap metal in a matter of minutes from the pressure of the ice-jam, lodging itself under the stone span of the Market Street Bridge a block below.

In 1994 there had been a pair of storms in January – one, around Martin Luther King Day and the next a few days later. I remember these because N's father had died that Sunday and it had already started to snow when we were called to the hospital. The next storm hit the night before the funeral and the only reason I was able to make it was because a neighbor with a 4-wheel drive vehicle got a snow-day at work. The roads, however, were impassable and we were unable to get to the cemetery, It was also bitterly cold – the coldest temperatures ever recorded here coincided with these storms: several nights of subzero readings bottomed out at -22°.

There was a President's Day Storm in 1979 – blame Carter – which dumped 20” of snow in Harrisburg. I was living in New York City at the time where we had something similar, bringing the whole city to a complete standstill. As I recall, even the subways were closed. Another President's Day Storm in 2003 – blame Bush – dropped almost 27” on parts of the mid-state over a period of three days.

Curiously, I have no real recollection of this one.

There's one memory I can't match to a storm, maybe one of the mid'90s ones. The Sunday evening engineer got stuck overnight at the radio station and pulled a 24-hour air-shift until I was able to get in to relieve him (I have no idea why they couldn't get someone else in before then). A non-music person, he had to deal with almost a whole day's worth of classical music announcing, trying to pronounce names he had never seen before. I was finally able to get out of my house and into the station by 2pm, taking the board until 1 or 2am after he'd been rested up and took the overnight shift until the next day's crew was able to get back on schedule. That may well be why I don't remember much of that storm...

Hmmm. President's Day is coming up next Monday – and I see there's a “chance of flurries” in the extended forecast.

I do remember a March snowstorm in 1993, the only big storm of the season, but it dumped some 20+” in Harrisburg. Penn Street, a quaint narrow one-lane alley with fashionable row homes in my neighborhood, was drifted shut from side to side: you could barely tell there were cars parked there, completely hidden by the drifts except for a little bump here and there and the occasional antenna poking out.

In 1983, with that Lincoln's Birthday Blizzard, I didn't have a car to worry about so, basically, I didn't have a care about how much snow there was: it was amazing and it was kind of fun. I was a good bit younger, then, too.

Ten years later, it took me several days till I could get my car dug out – back trouble – and in the 1996 storms, the only parking place I could find was four blocks away from my house. Not fun when you leave work at 1am. That spring, then, a garage just around the corner from my apartment became available and I was able to get it: no more walking four blocks at 1am after a blizzard! Right. So the first snow storm we had brought a snow plow down Penn Street and they piled it... right in front of my garage door! So I had to sheer away a freaping cliff of SEVEN FEET of snow to get my car out of the garage!

Next month, it will be 50 years since I first moved into this house with my parents. We had some bad storms that first winter, too, in 1960-61. I don't recall the number of inches for either of them, but there were two in fairly close succession. And drifting, too – my west-side neighbors are slightly higher than us on our little hill, and the snow would blow down from his driveway and cover ours. I recall his driveway being almost clear. Ours was so deep, once it was plowed, it was like looking down a canyon. You couldn't see the cars going up or down. Walking down for the mail reminded me of that great scene in “The Ten Commandments” when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea: I hoped I would make it back to the house before it would collapse...

Yesterday, before the storm and while the sun was still shining brightly on my snowy front yard, I saw five robins flying back and forth between the trees and my roof. They may have been a little early for Spring – I don't recall the earliest date I've seen robins, here – but sometimes there are robins wintering over in the mountains just a few miles north of us, here. They were gone soon. I hope they found a safe place to hang out till this is over.

There are icicles hanging from the edge of the roof: these are the ones outside my bedroom window (see left) looking east.

So now I'm listening to the moaning of the wind which kicked in around 9am – they're calling for wind gusts up to 40mph with the heaviest snow later this afternoon – and wondering if we'll get the 18-20” that's the upper range of today's prediction. On top of what's left of the last storm, that's more snow than I care to deal with, right now.

When I checked last night at 10:30, there was a mere 3” of new snow on that front porch post – I'd cleared off the old snow before it had begun snowing just after 4:00. This morning at 8:00, there was 7.5” on the post. But the second phase of this second storm – the new Low that is supposed to form off the coast and “explode” into a fierce Nor'Easter late this morning – hasn't begun yet.

Here is a photo taken at 11:30 looking along my front sidewalk toward the driveway (to the west). I'd shoveled most of that walk yesterday but now there's 13" of new snow on it and it's drifting. Uh huh...

Okay, it's not the end of the world and I'd rather deal with snow than with mudslides like Los Angeles or earthquakes like Haiti. As someone posted at Facebook – and don't get me started on their “new look” – “snow and adolescence are two things that will go away if you ignore them long enough.”

Did I just hear thunder? Yes - a friend in CT heard a report on the radio that the Mid-Atlantic was experiencing "thunder snow," something that used to be a rare occurrence but is becoming less so, these days. Still, if the banshees weren't enough, that's better than the Grim Shoveler...

39 days till Spring! See you then!

- Dr. Dick

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