All the talk of the Polar Vortex hitting the Midwest of the USA reminds me of the year my family and I spent in Nebraska, the funnily-shaped State bang in the middle of the country. People are saying that there hasn’t been a freeze like that for a generation. That’s exactly when we were there.
We spent the academic year of 1983-4 in Nebraska and were completely unprepared for its hot, humid climate when we first arrived in September. It reminded us of Tel-Aviv, though without the benefit of the cooling sea breeze. However, that didn’t last very long. The winter came upon us very suddenly and harshly right after Thanksgiving (mid-November), when overnight the temperature dropped to below freezing, there were heavy and continuous snowfalls, with their concomitant icy roads and sidewalks (in England we call the sidewalk the pavement, which is the word for the road in the USA, and this of course gave rise to a lot of confusion when doing our driving test until we managed to get the terminology sorted out).
We were told to equip ourselves with snow tyres and a heavy-duty battery for our car, though driving was still a risky business. The car had to be inside our garage at night, as leaving it out at the side of the road was prohibited and would also have meant it would have been impossible to start it the next day. I have managed to dig out some of the letters I sent from there to my family in Israel at the time, and was happy to read that while my husband and sons were clearing the snow from our driveway with special snow shovels they were able to help various drivers who had got stuck in the road.
Another priority was to acquire warm clothing, starting with thermal underwear (long-johns) for every member of the family, and appropriately warm coats, hats, scarves,gloves, and boots — no small expense for a family of five living on a miserly university salary. Face masks were also required, though were soon discarded as they left the nose and mouth exposed, which seemed to defeat the purpose. It was still possible for my husband to drive the children to school (unless school was cancelled on the especially cold days, as the roads were impassable and the car-parks where high-school pupils left their cars were still blocked by snow and ice). Then there was the ‘wind-chill’ factor, which brought temps that were already well below freezing to minus twenty or thirty degrees — something we had never encountered before (and hope to never experience again).
The case of our youngest son was different as his elementary school was just a five-minute walk from our house. On the short walk home his hands and the backs of his knees froze and became painful, but at least the house was well-insulated and warm, so he could thaw out at home. I was shocked, one morning when the school nurse phoned me to say that Eitan (Ethan in America) had arrived at school in a bad state, his fingers frozen even though he was wearing warm gloves, and that she had had to ‘defrost’ them by putting them in cold (!) water. Yes, that’s how one defrosts frozen fingers. You live and learn.
I remember venturing out from time to time, on foot as I was too scared to drive on the slippery roads, just for the short trip to the local grocery store. Walking past piles of dirty and slushy snow along the sides of the roads I remember pulling my scarf up over my mouth and nose as breathing in the icy air was physically painful. Icicles adorned the trees and roofs, and the one consolation was that Eitan and Ariel could earn a few dollars digging driveways and paths for elderly neighbours.
The snow showed no signs of melting for months on end. The municipality’s snow-clearing budget ran out, and so no roads other than the few main thoroughfares were cleared. If there was a little sunshine in the daytime it would melt the snow and ice, but the freezing night-time temps meant that everything froze over again, making walking and driving even more treacherous than before.
Like the current Polar Vortex, the great freeze we experienced was due to the fact that there are no mountains to impede the flow of icy air from the Arctic in the winter. The same applies in reverse to the heat from the Gulf of Mexico in the summer.
The climate of the Midwest is not for sissies.