So apparently it’s been unseasonable warm in Moscow of late – and presumably elsewhere as well. Well, as my international readers may not know, there’s a reason for this, and it’s one my American readers have been hearing about for the past week: America stole Moscow’s winter. Sorry, Moscow.
Winter storms Hercules and Ion hit the Chicago are with nearly two feet of snow, as well as a phenomenon that the media called a “Polar Vortex” – an area of low pressure that pulled a wide swath of arctic air over most of the country for several days. While places like Moscow and Alaska experienced unusually warm weather, Chicago and other mainland American cities were hit with the coldest temperatures they’d experienced in twenty years.
You’d have thought the world was going to end.
Weather emergencies were declared, people told not to go out unnecessarily. The commuter trains in Chicago were severely delayed, or in some cases, canceled altogether, because the rails were freezing, shrinking, and even breaking. The Chicago Public Schools canceled two days of classes, as did my own school district – a truly unprecedented event. (By contrast, in my twelve years in that system, I never once got a snow day because the snow removal systems are so efficient.) Three Amtrak trains en route to Chicago were stuck in twelve-foot snow drifts for over twelve hours; the passengers, including my friend Sarah, were eventually bussed to Chicago when six locomotives failed to dislodge the stuck trains.
And to a certain extent, I understand the hubbub. An 8˚F/-13˚C day in Atlanta is in many ways more dangerous than a -30˚F/-34˚C day in Mongolia because Atlanta and its people are not prepared for such weather; my friend Charlotte had never owned a real winter coat before she went to college in Ohio because she’d never needed to, and I’m sure she’s far from alone. -17˚F is ten to fifteen degrees colder than Chicago is used to enduring (and that for only a few days a year), and its extensive mass transit systems don’t handle it well. The large homeless population, even with a concerted effort to shelter all of its members during the polar blast, is also at obvious risk.
But I still think it was all blown way out of proportion.
Yes, cold is dangerous, but it’s a manageable danger; it won’t kill you if you’re properly prepared. But you wouldn’t know that from the reactions of the media or the general public. Slideshows of weird and beautiful weather phenomena are cool; public service announcements about frostbite prevention and proper layering are necessary; updates on the innumerable and inevitable airport, traffic, and rail delays are useful. But it’s one thing to provide useful and relevant information on a current and far-reaching event, and another to treat it like the end of the world.
The image at left, for instance, is from a Weather Channel listicle entitled, “10 Photos That Show How Insanely Cold Chicago It Is in Chicago.” The story was also carried on other news networks – CNN, WGN, and whatever radio station we were listening to at the time. When decontextualized, as at left, it’s a shocking, even frightening statement. But the oversimplification misses an important point: it’s too cold for a Chicago polar bear, one who doesn’t have the fat reserves put on by her cousins up north. Some news carriers included this detail, but others went for shock value and omitted it. Unsurprisingly, it was the simplified version that made it into social media.
Another example of public overreaction, this time a Facebook post by a friend of a friend: “Please say a prayer for all those who are working out in this horrid freezing weather, including my brother, those working to restore power, working on water lines, delivering mail, picking up garbage, etc. etc. It’s too dangerous out there for any human.”
She had me up until that last sentence. I don’t want to minimize the suffering or sacrifice of the people impacted by this winter; I know it was, and is, real. Not everyone has the resources or the know-how to protect themselves properly from this kind of weather, and for these people, Hercules and Ion were truly disastrous. And I certainly agree that the good people braving the cold to allow American life to continue as normally as possible do deserve our prayers, thanks, and recognition. But while the sentiment is well-intentioned, its conclusion is alarmist and just plain wrong. No, people shouldn’t be sent to work outside if they aren’t properly protected; no, they probably won’t be comfortable, even if they’re not in actual danger. But from the average American’s reaction to unexpected inconvenience, you’d think that uncomfortable and unbearable were synonyms.
Discomfort and cold are a way of life for a lot people. Trains and buses might have been running behind schedule, but at least we have them. My car was reluctant to start during the cold snap, and its windows froze shut, but I still had a car – as do most Americans. Waiting for a delayed train in the bitter cold is not fun, but it still beats walking that distance along unpaved roads in even more frigid temperatures. And no matter how cold it was outside, the vast majority of us were not dependent on wood- or coal-burning stoves to keep us from freezing to death.
If my time in Mongolia has changed me in any single, lasting way, it’s by changing my perspective. That’s a big part of why I picked Mongolia in the first place: I wanted to experience life outside the first world. I returned with a new appreciation of just how easy things are here: washing clothes and dishes, cleaning the floor, traveling across the city, the state, or even the country. When I’m stuck in traffic now, I’m more likely to be frustrated by the people around me who are frustrated at the traffic than by the traffic itself.
And when it’s not just a little traffic – when it’s a near-total log jam of transportation in which flights are grounded, highways closed, and trains stuck in snow drifts or canceled for fear of derailment? A lot of people turn downright ugly. Sarah told me, and the reporters who swarmed the passengers when they finally arrived in Chicago, that while arriving nearly a full day behind schedule was certainly less than ideal, the conditions on the train were reasonably comfortable: they had heat and light and were at least fed dinner, though there were no snacks and only limited water. The conductor made the rounds of the train and kept the passengers up to date on what Amtrak was doing to try to get them out.
The conductor’s attempts to maintain communication and keep things light were not reciprocated by all of the passengers, however. The conductor learned many new things from angry passengers, including “who she was, where she should go, and what she should do with herself,” including a number of word she hadn’t heard during her time in the Marines. In her shoes, I probably would have told the passengers in question that if they thought they could do a better job of getting the train unstuck, they were welcome to go out and push. There were also rumors of a fistfight, though Sarah did not witness it. The news was rife with interviews of similarly bilious grounded airline passengers.
I understand that the travel delays impeded people’s ability to go on carefully-planned vacations, or visit sick or dying loved ones, or to attend important career events. In their shoes, I’d be frustrated and angry too. But there’s only so much anyone can do when the puts a twelve-foot snowdrift in the way of your train, and taking your anger out on the conductor does nothing to fix it. It is not the railroad’s fault that the train does not have the supplies to feed its passengers several unscheduled meals; did no one think even to bring snacks with them?
These things happen. Winter happens. And while it doesn’t usually happen this badly in Chicago, it happens a lot. Winter inconveniences are just one of the hazards of living here, and I think if more Americans knew just how soft we have it and reacted accordingly, they’d be a lot more pleasant.