One way of looking at the ferocious winter storm that last week carved a 2,000-mile path across the US, battering states from coast to coast and from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande along the border with Mexico, is to see in it nature’s way of telling Americans, “Hey, if you think that because yours is the wealthiest, mightiest and most developed nation on earth you can beat me at my game, well then, put that in your pipe and smoke it”.
Another, albeit less ornately allegorical way of looking at it is to see in the storm a glimpse — a mere glimpse — of the ruin that climate change has in store for our children and our children’s children, not just in the United States but in whatever corner of the planet they will in the future be inhabiting as adults.
Look at it whichever way you want, but the uncommonly brutish weather conditions that ravaged the US last week, and continue to do as we speak, were indeed worthy of being dubbed, as they have been in the media, “historic”, “one for the ages” and “blizzard of the century”.
This winter in America, conversing about the weather is not, as Oscar Wilde put it, “the last refuge of the unimaginative”. In fact, this winter in America you are unimaginative if you don’t find it in you to talk about the weather, resorting to superlatives to describe it.
Cold snap in the US
And when we talk about it, we’re talking about a massive storm that brought with it dangerous blizzard conditions, strong tornadoes, severe coastal flooding and icy cold Arctic winds that chill bones hidden under three layers of clothing.
A storm that blanketed mountains with heavy snow and shut down major highways, leaving thousands stuck in their vehicles in the frigid cold, with no way for rescue workers to reach them, and resulted in awful airline cancellations, topping 60 per cent of scheduled flights, that in turn left tens of thousands of travellers stranded at airports.
We’re talking about a storm that knocked out electrical power and split water pipes in countless homes across a large swath of the country, leaving millions of people without heat and clean, running water.
In short, a storm that, in one form or another, has affected the lives of roughly 200 million people living in 48 states in the US, including, to single out one case in point, the lives of women in labour, unable to reach hospitals, whose relatives were coached by doctors on the phone on how to deliver babies at home.
Even cities like Buffalo and Chicago, whose residents are not known to fuss over trivia like heavy snow, considering it part of the everydayness of wintertime, found themselves buried unusually deep in it — to the tune of six feet.
In fact, so little respect do these folks show storms that, according to news reports, some Chicagoan football fans went to what you and I would call the lunatic extreme of walking in that snow to Soldier Football Stadium on Saturday to watch the Chicago Bears play the Buffalo Bills.
Beyond this, eh, lunatic fringe, however, other Americans had to endure the below zero wind chills visited upon them, wherever they lived in the continental US.
And how brutal were these windchills in Washington, this columnist’s hometown?
Well. I’ll tell you. If you were reckless enough to venture outside, to run an errand, and while there felt the Artic wind knifing through to the bone your old geezer body, you knew for sure that you had to keep walking because if you stopped you would die, then and there, say, as you stood at the curb waiting for the eternity it took for the traffic light to go from green to red before you crossed the street.
Makes you wonder. Has Mother Nature gone bonkers? Does it have a beef with Americans? Whatever.
But look, there’s an image that never ceased to haunt some of us — some of us fortunate enough to live in comfortable, heated homes and to bundle up when we ventured outside them.
Plight of refugees
The image is that of the thousands upon thousands of migrants from countries in Central America (in 2022, an unprecedented 2.7 million of them crossed the southern border into the US) who had found themselves stranded in American cities and towns close to the Mexican border, where now the sidewalks are lined with blankets and makeshift bedding on which they sleep in freezing cold weather.
In El Paso, a city in Texas that lies close to the US-Mexico border, authorities have scrambled to open emergency shelters to house and feed them — but only some qualify.
Those who do not are turned away because they had entered the country surreptitiously, unnoticed by border guards — often arriving after months-long dangerous journeys, harrowed and beaten — and thus were “without papers” We, those of us, I say, who live in comfortable, heated homes, who are well-fed and protected from the cold, think of what the image of these folks’ misery should evoke in our minds.
In society we expect and in time become accustomed to structure our lives around normal climate conditions, and we whine (Oh, do we whine!) when extremes that fall outside that range occur. But the fact is that climate change is catching up with us.
The fact is not that Mother Nature has gone bonkers. Rather the fact is that the climate disasters being visited upon us around the world are of our own making and that different types of extreme weather, such as those experienced — indeed, endured — by Americans this winter will increase in ferocity and magnitude.
And the sooner public perception is able to connect these natural disasters — think, say, Pakistan’s June-to-October catastrophic flooding — the better it is, I say, to those children and their own children’s children.
No, Mother Nature has not gone bonkers, but it does have a blunt message to us: You play, you pay. Case closed.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.