Lessons from a Snowstorm

8 January 2009

Revisiting Portland’s December 2008 snow storm and its aftermath

Recently Portland had a significant snow storm. I wrote about it several times. While it is not unusual for Portland to receive a dusting of snow in the winter, and it is not unusual for large amounts of snow to fall in the Cascade Range to the east and, to the lesser extent, in the Coast Range to the west, it is unusual for there to be a foot of snow in Portland and the Willamette Valley. Our temperate zone weather is further moderated by the presence of the Pacific, which typically sends us our share of rain, but keeps our temperatures from getting too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.

At present, we are experiencing an extended “sou’wester” (sometimes called the “Pineapple Express”) which is a warm wind with lots of rain that comes in from the South Pacific. Sometimes the sou’wester comes in very rapidly after snow and a cold snap, causing serious flooding with the combination of snow melt and new rain. This time we have thawed out more gradually, and while there is some flooding (I-5 between Portland and Seattle was closed yesterday due to flooding, and I just received word that it is still closed and will likely remain so through the weekend) it is not severe and not likely to cause much disruption. (The last time we had really serious flooding was in 1996.)

In those regions that regularly receive significant amounts of snow, life is little disrupted by new snowfall. Snow is part of the routine. A foot of snow in downtown Portland, however, was sufficient to disrupt the routine of life. The first thing one notices is how local life becomes. In the kind of industrial society created in the US in the twentieth century, travel is easy, cheap, and convenient. People get used to this ease of transport, and configure their lives accordingly. When transportation becomes difficult, dangerous, and disproportionately time consuming, people are forced to re-configure their lives to take this change into account.

Subsistence and the locality of life

The nature of my work forced me to be out in the snow and ice every day, and to do so I had to chain up to get around. Even chained up, travel was difficult. There are many hilly and winding streets in the Portland area that were impassable (or virtually impassable) even with chains. I saw many cars, trucks, and buses spun out and stranded on steep streets. As a result, many people just stayed home. And when the plows started running on the side streets, they often plowed up a high berm of snow that took more than a week to melt away once temperatures began to rise. This trapped many cars in place during the duration of the storm.

Snow slowed everything down and made even local travel difficult.

Snow slowed everything down and made even local travel difficult.

Without easy transport by car, people stayed close to home when they got out. I suspect many people re-established contact with neighbors they had not seen in quite some time. I saw people out walking, snowshoeing, and skiing within the Portland metropolitan area. Since winter sports are enthusiastically pursued in Oregon, people have the equipment in their homes, though they usually take it to the mountains for fun. This past December, they could use their ski gear right from their front door.

The situation reminds me of a passage from Thucydides. Now, it would be a little much to call a snow storm a natural disaster, but there is a certain sense in which it is like a natural disaster, and a natural disaster in turn is like war. What Thucydides said about life during the revolution on Corcyra is true to a lesser extent when daily life comes under pressure for whatever reason:

“In times of peace and prosperity cities and individuals alike follow higher standards, because they are not forced into a situation where they have to do what they do not want to do. But war is a stern teacher; in depriving them of the power of easily satisfying their daily wants, it brings most people’s minds down to the level of their actual circumstances.” (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 3, Chapter 5)

Thus, here is one lesson from the snow storm: The locality of life is perennial. In other words, the local is the perennial and the perennial is the local. People will always return to local life (what Thucydides calls our “actual circumstances”). It is perennial. When life becomes difficult, and what was formerly easy has become a struggle, people focus only on survival and extraneous concerns quickly fall away. Struggling for subsistence, people rapidly re-evaluate what is important and what is not important. I can easily imagine someone experiencing a moment of clarity and consequently making a lasting change in their lives as a result of being locked down in a snow storm.

The reaction against the culinary-industrial complex

There are a great many studies analyzing the alienation, anomie, and dehumanization of industrialized society. These consequences of industrialization were unintended consequences. (Industrialization itself was an emergent from the evolution of civilization, and not a planned undertaking. Industrialization, ironically, is organic.) In the wealthiest of the industrialized regions of the world, we are seeing a profound reaction against some of the forms of life imposed by industrialization. One of these reactions is a recently increased interest in local foods. However, this interest in the local and in regional food locally produced and consumed while fresh, is an elite interest. Very few people can afford it. Among those gourmands who pursue local foods, the slogan has become, “pay more, eat less”, in order to emphasize the fact that high quality local ingredients (especially if organically produced) can be expensive. And almost all Americans need to eat less, as obesity is becoming epidemic.

I think this is the magazine in which I frist read the slogan "pay more, eat less". Certainly its articles consistently embody the principle, as well as the general reaction against the culinary-industrial complex.

I think this is the magazine in which I first read the slogan "pay more, eat less". Certainly its articles consistently embody the principle, as well as the general reaction against the culinary-industrial complex.

This is another unintended consequence of industrialization that no one could have predicted. Food is so cheap and so widely available, that it is all-too-easy to become overweight. But the relative cheapness and abundance of food does not mean that the conversion to a “pay more, eat less” way of life is made easy: incomes are easily absorbed elsewhere, as in housing costs, which, despite recent drops, are historically high.

The historically high price of housing is understandable. Think of what it takes to build and maintain a house today, as compared to the nineteenth century. Before our many technological revolutions, a house in temperate climates was a heated box. Now, every room is plumbed, lighted, heated, ducted, wired for electricity, telephone, sound, internet, and so on. A house has become a technologically sophisticated undertaking. Also, as population increases and available land does not, property prices inevitably move higher.

Perennial technologies, like the poor, will always be with us

Another lesson of the snow storm is the perenniality of some technologies. I have talked to people from other parts of the country who express surprise at how chains are used in Oregon. With a certain amount of regional pride, they will assert that they drive on packed snow all winter long and no one bothers to chain up. That may well be true in a largely flat landscape, but where there are hills, or where it is both windy and slippery, nothing beats chains for getting around. And when, as this past December, one must make one’s way through a foot a new snow on city streets, you won’t get anywhere without chains. Even chained vehicles can get stuck.

Fueling up in the midst of a snowstorm. The cable chains on my tires can be seen if you look closely.

Fueling up in the midst of a snowstorm. The cable chains on my tires can be seen if you look closely.

Truckers speak of “throwing on more iron” and sometimes actually put chains on top of chains when stuck in a lot a slushy snow. I can imagine that the technology of chains will improve marginally over time, but there is limit to the improvement of the basic technology. It was a significant improvement when cams were introduced for chaining truck tires. This year I was shown a new tool (new to me, at least) that allows truck chains to be put on tighter initially. The introduction of cable chains for cars was an important innovation, but cable chains don’t last. I ran through a set in three days. When I lost the second one, the cables were becoming frayed, so I would have lost it one way or another.

Running with chains is a learned skill. Firstly, the chains need to be as tight as possible. That means putting on the chains, running them around the block, and then stopping to tighten them again before running with them. Once running, if a cross link breaks the chains loosen up again. You must stop and re-tighten then, also binding down the loose cross link, or you will lose your chain. After running with chains a few days, you get a feeling for driving chained in the snow, and it begins to feel like any other driving. On well-packed snow, with really tight chains, you can safely do 50 or 60 MPH.

Again, chains can be improved somewhat, but it would be difficult to improve on the basic idea. Despite the denials of state authorities, chemical de-icers cause significant equipment failures. Salt on the roads is worse yet. In some cases you can get by with studded snow tires, but for the foreseeable future, when people and goods need to be transported in inclement weather, vehicles in climates and terrains such as Oregon will need to be chained to get where they are going. Even when there are flying cars, it will be much longer before there are flying trucks. Trucks and highways and chains will be a fact of life for some time to come. I see no reason why any of this will change in the next five hundred years.

Do you really want a few hundred million of these flying over your house? I didn't think so. In the meantime, drive a car, and chain up when it snows.

Do you really want a few hundred million of these flying over your house every day? I didn't think so. In the meantime, drive a car, and chain up when it snows.

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