As a major snowfall approaches my home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina weather forecasters warn of a dusting to several inches of snow showing us a spaghetti of forecast models which seem like “cover their butt” scenarios that make them right, no matter the outcome. Panic is immediate! Even before the first flake falls, schools close, and bread, milk, water, beer, and wine shelves are cleared. Then we all watch endless newscasts of the impending Armageddon while our North Carolina “Holy Crap, it’s snowing” emergency snow clearing plan is activated.
Highlights of the plan as per our city website:
- If snow is in the forecast, City crews apply a salt brine solution to major thoroughfares, bridges and overpasses 24 to 48 hours in advance. This helps to prevent snow from sticking to the pavement and makes plowing and additional salt application more effective…
- If snow or freezing rain begins to fall the Public Works Department activates its snow program. Salt spreaders and snow plows are mounted onto 25+ City trucks. Up to 100 employees begin working around the clock in 12-hour shifts until the streets are clear…
- Next, heavily traveled streets referred to as primary streets are treated with salt. If one or more inches of snow falls, crews begin plowing roadways… During inclement weather, the City plows more than 1,000 lane miles of streets….
- Residential streets are plowed only after all primary and secondary streets have been cleared.
- The program is not designed to provide convenient road conditions for extensive travel throughout the city.
This plan is sound unless we actually get snow. I’d like to be clear that our city’s snow fighting crews are excellent and equal to their peers in any other part of the country but when it comes to snow they know that they are fighting a losing battle. The plan has an iffy start since the first step of applying the snow melting brine is usually a waste of time and salt since 90% of the time our snow starts as rain so the salt brine solution is washed away before it can do anything. Then when the actual snow starts the limited number of plows are hard pressed to even keep the main highways clear. Remember the disclaimer on their web site: “The program is not designed to provide convenient road conditions for extensive travel throughout the city”–WTF
With or without Brine the snow quickly overwhelms the plows and the untouched side streets become impassable which is actually a good thing since it keeps the cowboys off the dangerous roads until the intense southern sun returns and melts the road glaciers. Eventually the plows surrender and just go home for a deserved rest. And a day or two after the final flake falls a brave plow reappears on our frozen side street at 2am in a futile, but appeasing, attempt to clear the impenetrable ice. To northerners this may sound FUBAR but we who have lived through this snow dance for years are resigned to the fact that we will be home-bound for up to a week. Spending millions on more snow fighting equipment for an occasional major snowstorm would be like manning northeast beaches with lifeguards during the winter.
Despite my unplowed window to the rest of the world I’m programmed to keep my driveway clean which gets me 50 feet to the snow and ice-covered roadway–driveway to nowhere. But the unplowed roadway is a safety barrier preventing me from venturing beyond the safety of the driveway. Why? Because after a few experiences of driving during southern snowstorms I’m terrified of sharing the snow-covered roads with fair-weather driving southerners or too-cocky transplanted northerners who somehow make it to the main roads. Too fast, too slow, too close—hundreds of crashes-crashes-crashes. Many quickly discover that the only difference between their perceived go anywhere, all wheel drive SUV and other vehicles is how far they go off the road.
After a few winter storms in the south I stopped trying to transfer my unreasonable northern snow clearing expectations and decided that waiting the few days until the southern sun clears the roads is a better option than getting caught in a demolition derby. Being trapped in my neighborhood isn’t all bad since this is a rare southern phenomenon (hopefully) that does have some positives: watching southern kids discovering the magic of sledding, snowballs and making snowmen, bundling up for a neighborhood walk sans cars, getting together with neighbors to help shovel driveways, and enjoying the beauty of freshly fallen snow brings me back to some of the good things about my past winters in New York.
Most of the time the break is enjoyable as long as the power stays on and the bread, milk and beer lasts. And unlike New York, in a few days it’s back to a normal southern winter of 50-60 degrees with sun and a Carolina blue sky.