The nor’easter which hit the US and Maritimes recently reminded me that it’s the ten year anniversary of “Snowmageddon” – the storm of the century in my part of Canada. A raging blizzard so bad that a massive dump of snow closed the major highway for two whole days. Police patrolling the area on snowmobiles counted 200 tractor trailers and more than 100 cars trapped in the drifts, but the unofficial count put the number much higher, with estimates of 1500 passengers stranded and 700 rescued, with many vehicles simply abandoned on the country roads.
The storm started brewing on Sunday. Snow squalls coming off the lake usually move, but this one stayed stationary dumping over 40 cm of snow on the roads with 70 km/hr north winds making for blustery driving conditions. A state of emergency was declared on Monday and the national guard was called in, complete with rescue helicopters to airlift passengers who had been stranded in their vehicles overnight or longer.
A snowplow towing a school bus was dispatched to collect people along the route and bring them to warming stations in the nearby villages. By Tuesday night close to 300 motorists had been rescued from the worst hit section, but it took several more days for the plows and tow trucks to clear the 30 km stretch of highway and start in on the side roads. At the rescue centres, residents of the small towns and villages were generous with food donations, blankets and cots and some even opened up their homes to grateful strangers.
Now, it’s nothing new for this highway to be closed periodically in the winter, usually just for a short period of time as streamers coming off the lake make the area notorious for sudden white-out conditions. I should know, as I drove to work in this region for over thirty years. As an essential worker, I was used to driving in anything, but even I did not go to work that day because all the roads in the area were closed. People who had detoured off the main highway soon found themselves on roads less traveled but just as deep with drifts. Friends of mine took in a couple who were stranded in front of their farm – for two days they fed them home-cooked meals, and played cards and told stories and so people from the city got to experience a dose of rural hospitality until their vehicle could be pulled out of the ditch.
When I was working, I dreaded winter. It might be bright and sunny when I left home, but by the time I reached the snowbelt area it would be a raging blizzard. If you didn’t go in you were home safe but sorry, as you would inevitably feel guilty about leaving your colleagues with a skeleton staff and a 12 hour shift and you’d make up for your day off with an increased workload the following day. But I was a dedicated employee who seldom even took a sick day, so I’d go in and the drive would be predictably awful and my nerves would be shot by the time I got home.
When I worked at a rural hospital, I was lucky as I drove in daylight. If it was bad out, I might leave a bit early to get away before dark, and if it was an exceptionally wicked storm I was allowed to stay home, at my discretion. This would happen maybe once a year. As so many of the employees lived out in the country, the hospital had a contingency plan where the current staff stayed over, and someone’s husband with a snowmobile could always be counted on to go out and collect the staff who lived in the town. There wouldn’t be a lot of admissions on those days, surgeries would often be cancelled if the surgeons couldn’t get out, (once one of the doctors had to do a C-Section by phone when even the ambulance couldn’t get there), but the ER would be busy with the usual disasters that such weather always brings on – heart attacks for the snow-shovelers (best stock up on clot busters) car accidents, (hopefully minor, but not always, hence my anxiety about winter driving), and once someone frozen under the ice in a creek overnight (miraculously he survived intact).
After I changed jobs and started working evenings, there was no backup plan. I drove through everything as the only excuse for not showing up at work was if you were dead. Snowmageddon was the only time I ever remember my workplace being closed, and that was only for one day. Even my boss didn’t go in that day, having turned down the offer of a snowmobile ride. It was one of the few occasions where there was nothing open and nobody out and about. The hospital was open of course, so it’s not like people were without medical options. In fact, ER was doubly busy with all the stranded people who did not have their insulin/inhalers/critical meds with them. And just for the record, this storm had been predicted – there had been plenty of warnings and advance notice starting on Sunday, so it’s not like it came out of nowhere, but some people don’t pay attention to the weather forecast. I always had the weather network and the winter road report on speed-dial, and my emergency car kit would go in the trunk in the fall and stay there until May 1st. Once November skies darkened and the flurries began to fly, my snow anxiety level remained on high alert.
Although I was some distance from the worst hit region, I didn’t have a snow day. I offered to pick up a shift for someone who lived along the lake and had no hope of getting here – she actually started crying on the phone, so great was her relief. I only had a short drive and once I made it out of my subdivision it was okay. It always amazed me how busy we would be on snow days, but I’ve reached the conclusion that some people just cannot deal with the claustrophobia of a snowstorm. They must be out and about in the worst of weather conditions – to the grocery store to buy eggs, the library to return books – any excuse will do.
The next day, when the county road was still closed, I called my boss and told him I was not coming in. This was met with a stony silence (and probably some degree of shock) and then a small voice….well couldn’t you come in later, if the road reopens? It did finally at 4 pm, but no, I did not, as I would have had a miserable drive home in the dark, and there would have been no hope of booking in at the only B&B with all those stranded passengers. I didn’t even feel guilty as there was no thanks for helping him out the day before, and it’s not like he was by himself as someone who lived in town had come in to help him out. The next day the sun shone and my courage returned, but there was hell to pay, as we were still backed up, but personally I’d rather be safe than dead in a ditch.
We’ve had very little snow this winter, a few inches here and there, but no major snowstorms so far, although there has been in other parts of the province. When I think of all those years I drove through hell and now that I’m retired, practically nothing, it makes me mad. It also makes me wonder about climate change. Maybe blizzards will soon be a thing of the past? Maybe I’ll be like one of those old people telling tales about walking ten miles to school in two feet of snow….and reminiscing about the big blizzard of 2010. (Next week – Part Two – The Worst Drive Ever)
PS: Does your workplace have a snowstorm contingency plan? It seems to me that some places are open when they needn’t be. Like the library for instance – is that an essential service? I wish administrations would think about their staff when they make decisions, especially if they are driving home at night. Even closing early would help.