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After the Blizzard

January 30, 2015

house after blizzardTuesday was an exciting day in Maine, as we were visited by a classic Nor’easter blizzard. A Nor’easter is a big (usually winter) storm that travels up the east coast of the United States and brings a lot of precipitation accompanied by strong northeasterly winds. If the storm has sustained winds of at least 35 mph and blowing snow with visibility of one-quarter mile or less, and if those conditions last for at least three hours, the storm is a blizzard. This is what we had on Tuesday. The snow actually began on Monday evening and continued for more than 24 hours. For much of that time, the snow was falling at the rate of an inch or more per hour and was whipped around both in the air and on the ground by howling winds.

I was well prepared for this storm. The National Weather Service had issued blizzard warnings days in advance, and in this age of weather hype, meteorologists had excitedly predicted a “historic storm.” By the time the snow began, I had done grocery shopping and tucked my car into the slot between retaining walls at the basement entrance, out of the way of the plow. I also made sure I had plenty of water on hand in case of a power outage. (Like most people in rural Maine, I get water from a drilled well with an electric pump. No electricity, no running water.) As the storm raged on Tuesday, I stayed inside, snug and warm, except for one brief foray out to sweep drifting snow from my roofed front porch and front entry.

snow on trees

I woke up on Wednesday morning to wonderful light and deep snow (as seen here in the back garden). Usually, when trees are covered with snow like this, it is because the snow is heavy, wet and sticky. That was not the case here. Cold temperatures throughout the storm (10-15 F) meant that this snow was light, dry and fluffy. It was the force of the wind that left it stuck to the trees – as though it had been sprayed on with a high-pressure nozzle.

Snowstorms here are usually followed by sunshine, good conditions for getting out and cleaning up. The neighbor who plows our dirt road and my driveway plowed twice during the storm and then came back again on Wednesday morning with a front-end loader. It wasn’t that the snow was too deep or too heavy for his plow. The problem was that this fine powdery snow doesn’t stay put after you plow it. The front end loader allowed him to pick up the snow and dump it behind the existing snow banks – slower than plowing, but very effective.

I got out to begin shoveling in late morning. I began by cleaning off the new porch and deck at the front of my house.

porch and deck before porch and deck after
And then moved on to the front entry, steps and walkway. shoveled front entry
shoveled back entry By the time I worked my way around the end of the house to the back door, I had worked up enough body heat to steam up my glasses – time to take a break for lunch.
I did another 90-minute stint of shoveling in the afternoon, clearing the steps down to the driveway and digging my car out from its narrow slot. I saved the last of my shoveling chores – the basement entrance, the garden path to the heat pump and back deck, and the deck itself – for the next day.

So was this a “historic storm,” as some weather forecasters predicted? Not by my standards. We had a significant snowfall (a little less than 2’ here), but it didn’t set records. And, despite the high winds, the light powdery snow did not bring down any power lines or cause power outages.

My standard of “historic” is the blizzard of February 1978, which I experienced as a graduate student in Providence, Rhode Island. Knowing a snow storm was coming, I rode a bus for the three-mile trip from my apartment to the Brown University campus that morning, rather than bicycling as I normally would have. At the last minute, I grabbed a toothbrush and threw it in my purse – which was a good thing, because by the time I got around to leaving school, a few hours after the snow began, the snow had already piled up about a foot, visibility was almost non-existent, and the city buses had stopped running. I walked with a friend to her apartment a few blocks from campus and ended up spending a week there, finally walking home on the 7th day when the city buses were still not running. About 3 feet of wind-whipped snow fell on Providence that day, and it came down so fast that thousands of motorists were trapped on interstate highways. State police rounded up people from their stuck cars and walked them off the highway to places where they could shelter – for example, schools, fire stations, and restaurants.

My friend Jan and I went to bed in the eerie silence of a city brought to a standstill by the storm and were awakened several hours later by pounding on the front door of the building where she lived. When she went down to investigate, she found Joyce, an art teacher at a suburban school who had been stranded on the highway on her way home from work. Eventually rescued from her car, she was taken to shelter at a public utility building and allowed to sleep in a room with bunk beds for crew. When she was awakened after a few hours and told she would have to get up to allow someone else an opportunity to sleep, Joyce decided that she could walk the mile home and sleep in her own bed.

By the time she had gone a few blocks, Joyce knew she had made a mistake. Trying to walk through waist-high snow in gale-force winds was exhausting, and she was covered from head to toe with wet snow. She realized that she was in trouble, but what to do? She wasn’t sure she had the strength to make it back to the utility building. At that moment, she noticed an open doorway and went in to get some shelter from the snow and wind. She was in the small vestibule of Jan’s apartment building, where the door had blown open. But the vestibule had no place to sit down, was filling with snow blowing in, and the door to the stairs beyond was locked. By the time she began pounding on that door, she was desperate, sobbing and shivering.

The next day, the snow stopped, the sun came out, and people began to make pedestrian paths on top of the snow that clogged Providence’s streets. Having dried off, gotten warm, slept, and had something to eat, Joyce was feeling better (although very much shaken by her ordeal) and ready to finish her walk home.

One year later, I walked home with my friend Jan after we left campus on a beautiful winter afternoon in February 1979. In the vestibule of her apartment building, we found a basket with a bow on it and an envelope with her name. The basket contained a thank-you note from Joyce, a bottle of wine, and an illustrated volume of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” – a fitting way to remember a historic snow storm.

32 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2015 2:22 pm

    Wonderful story with a happy ending. We got about 31″ of snow on Tuesday. We were still clearing on Wednesday as well. It has snowed all day today. More clearing. 🙂

    • February 1, 2015 9:37 pm

      Judy, As long as we have two days of good weather to clean up after each storm, I can keep up. Let’s hope February doesn’t keep up at this pace; those snow banks are starting to get very high for me to throw the new snow up on top of them.

      • February 2, 2015 7:34 am

        You are so right. Our driveway keeps getting smaller because the snowblower can’t blow over the banks, and this woman is having a lot of trouble throwing it up and over my head. 🙂

  2. January 30, 2015 3:24 pm

    Jean, I am glad to hear you were OK through the storm although that is a lot of snow to shovel….and I agree it was not as epic as the blizzard of 93 where we had over 4 feet of snow and several states were buried….or the 77 blizzard here when we had over 3 ft for 2 days or or and the windows of our dorm were blowing in….but I can do without these epic storms and was glad we missed this one.

    Stay safe and warm and don’t overdo that shoveling.

    • February 1, 2015 9:38 pm

      Donna, I’ve been pacing myself on the shoveling. One of the benefits of being retired is that, most days, I don’t have anyplace I have to be; so I can take it slowly. If my aching back and knee recover by morning, I figure I haven’t overdone it.

  3. Molly permalink
    January 30, 2015 4:27 pm

    I remember the blizzard of ’78 well. I was living in Ma then and people were skiing down my street and 128 was a carpet of stranded cars. In retrospect then, this was “a piece of cake” Good ol farmers fertilizer

    • February 1, 2015 9:40 pm

      Molly, I was looking at old news reports and 128 had even more cars stranded that the interstates through Providence. I think this storm rivaled that one in some parts of southern New England, but in Maine it was just a big winter storm.

  4. January 30, 2015 5:38 pm

    I grew up in Minnesota so I do love winter and the snow, but I find that I grow more impatient, sooner, for spring as the years pass.

    • February 1, 2015 9:41 pm

      Charlie, I do love winter, which is a beautiful season here, but I’m not as intrepid about driving in snow as I was when I was younger. I start getting really fed up with winter in late March, and my plan is to escape to someplace that is actually having spring in April of each year.

  5. joenesgarden permalink
    January 30, 2015 7:05 pm

    That’s a wonderful story, Jean. We had similar conditions here in south central CT with about 20 inches of snow. No power loss but a lot of blowing and drifting. It was an easy snow to plow and clean and, finally, gave our landscape the look of a real New England winter. Plus, I got to try out my new snow shoes! New England is a special place in the winter … cool calm interspersed with raging storms … and beauty that shine for those who take the time to see it.

    • February 1, 2015 9:43 pm

      Ooh, snow shoes! I’ve been thinking of getting myself some. I used to be a committed cross-country skier, but seem less inclined to get out on my skis in recent years. Snow shoes might seem more secure.

      • joenesgarden permalink
        February 5, 2015 10:01 am

        I love my snow shoes. Great way to get some good exercise while forging paths on top of the snow.

  6. January 31, 2015 12:10 am

    As a native of Southern California, it’s almost impossible for me to conceive of that kind of weather but your story brings a vivid reality to those harsh winter conditions. I’m glad to hear that the most recent storm fell short by comparison.

    • February 1, 2015 9:44 pm

      Kris, Winter conditions can be harsh, but I’ll take blizzards over earthquakes any day!

  7. January 31, 2015 8:07 am

    I’m glad you weathered the storm Jean. We had a little over three feet here. I liked your story of the blizzard of ’78…friendship and kindness to others is always appreciated.

    • February 1, 2015 9:45 pm

      Yikes, over 3′! I’m glad we didn’t get that much (at least not all at once). It is amazing to me that, almost forty years later, my memories of the ’78 blizzard are so vivid.

  8. January 31, 2015 10:59 am

    A lovely story!
    I’ve often wondered about shovelling snow – is it easier than shovelling dirt??

    • February 3, 2015 9:50 pm

      Jack, I’ve had many hours to ponder this question as I’ve shoveled the more than 3′ of snow that fell here in 1 week. Shoveling snow is so different from shoveling dirt that I find it hard to compare them — but, yes, I do think that shoveling snow is usually easier. Snow has a lot of volume (on average 1 foot of snow melts down to 1 inch of water), but it is much lighter than dirt — especially if its the kind of dry fluffy snow that we’ve had here this past week. The challenges of shoveling snow come from the sheer amount that has to be moved (I’ve literally shoveled truckloads of snow this week) and the difficulties of finding a place to put it. At this point, I’m trying to fling snow up on top of snowbanks that are well above the top of my head, and we’ve got a long way to go before any of this begins to melt sometime in March. All that snow cover is good for the garden, though!

  9. January 31, 2015 5:19 pm

    Utterly captivated by your snow story!

    • February 3, 2015 9:51 pm

      Diana, I only met Joyce that one night but she still has a powerful place in my memory.

  10. February 1, 2015 7:11 am

    Hi Jean – just wow! While you measure snow depth in feet, we’ve been measuring it in centimetres and even then, you have to get up early in the morning to catch it otherwise it’s gone by lunch!

    • February 3, 2015 9:55 pm

      Sunil, That’s the difference made by the gulf current that crosses the Atlantic ocean well south of me and warms the coasts of England. The result is that we have much, much colder temperatures in the winter, and the snow just piles up without melting. We had our first significant snow here (a little over a foot) in late November and have had continuous snow cover since. At this point, the snow pack is well over 3′ deep and the snow banks are over 6′ high — and none of this will start to melt until sometime in March.

  11. February 1, 2015 10:30 am

    Jean, I enjoyed your story of the ’78 blizzard. People who live in warm climates rarely understand either the perils or the delights of winter. Your backyard photo looks a lot like my view!

    • February 3, 2015 9:56 pm

      Pat, I have that same sense of familiarity when I look at your photos — although you garden on a much grander scale than I do, we live in very similar ecosystems.

  12. February 2, 2015 12:47 pm

    What a story from that storm a few decades ago! I’m glad this one was less eventful for you. Lovely shots of the snowy garden.

    • February 3, 2015 9:57 pm

      VW, I’m glad this one was less eventful, too. One or two of those very eventful storms is enough for a lifetime. The snowy scene here really is lovely — especially now when the snow is new and fresh. By March, I’ll be heartily sick of it!

  13. February 2, 2015 3:41 pm

    It’s easy not to appreciate how hazardous this kind of weather can be. We got up to 19″, but it’s a fairly powdery snow.

    • February 3, 2015 9:59 pm

      Jason, All of our snow this past week (more than 3′ of it from three different storms) has been light and fluffy. I don’t think any of it fell when temperatures were above 20F, so it has very little water content. But I’m ready for a break!

  14. February 3, 2015 6:54 pm

    What a tale Jean! I can’t imagine getting stuck for a week at someone else’s home. So lucky that lady found you both. We found the ‘blizzard’ wasn’t much of a storm either but today has been a serious wallop. We got 65 cm (about 25 inches) overnight and apparently more of the same coming Thursday. Winter has arrived!

    • February 3, 2015 10:01 pm

      Marguerite, Yesterday’s storm was far enough out to sea that we “only” got about a foot of new snow here (on top of the 2+ feet that were already on the ground from the two earlier storms in the week). It’s not clear yet whether Thursday’s storm will be far enough out to sea to mostly miss us or whether we’ll get another 12″ or so.

  15. February 5, 2015 4:08 pm

    Wonderful story – and you have a great reminder of the event in the book of Robert Frost’s poems. Illustrated too! Would love to see the illustrations. You make me ashamed of myself – all that snow shovelling while currently I feel like I can’t move a muscle. Take care!

    • February 6, 2015 9:21 am

      Cathy, I’m definitely getting into shape from all that shoveling — a full-body workout that uses all the major muscle groups plus cardio 🙂 . Alas, I don’t have the illustrated copy of “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening;” it was a gift to my friend Jan. She lives nearby here in Maine; I should ask her about it. I’d love to look at it again.

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