Gentle reader, please forgive these shaky hands; the shovelling has broken my arms. It has been five days since St. John’s first declared a state of emergency after a monster blizzard gusting up to 170 km/h dumped more than six feet of snow on the city in a day. Civilization has ground to a halt under snow drifts 12 feet deep. Snowmobiles blast through uncleared city streets and Holloway Street has been turned into the island’s sickest ski jump. We shiver under the spectre of martial law as Canadian troops patrol the roads with fearsome plastic scoops in search of seniors who need aid. Snowbanks rise like towering mountains from the city sidewalks.
There is nowhere else to put the goddamn snow.
At first it was all fun and games. A long weekend, the mandatory Sabbath of a snow day, an absolution from the ordinary guilt of noshing on junk food by calling them “storm chips”—the world was still so pure. If you didn’t lose power you could enjoy the ultimate staycation. A weekend winter wonderland in the backyard to keep the kids from getting cabin fever. Even as snowfall predictions crept up from an early 30 cm ceiling to anticipating more than 5 feet, it seemed like your standard St. John’s snowstorm.
Then it started. When they closed the liquor stores and pulled the taxis off the road, you knew it was going to be serious. Declaring a state of emergency as a raging whiteout struggled to blow the roofs off every house in town seemed obvious. It made sense that stores could not open and no one but emergency or snow-clearing vehicles would be allowed on the roads. An avalanche in the Battery—an old neighbourhood perched precariously on the cliffs of Signal Hill—triggered an evacuation out into the night. (No one was hurt.) Workers were flat out keeping emergency services afloat, many still on the first day of what would become three-day shifts. A baby named ‘Snow’ was delivered at the Health Sciences amid the dark and stormy night; to prepare a throne for this once and future King is our new purpose as a people.
It was an extraordinary storm, but we came through it. The real shock came the following day when everyone could assess the damage. A photo of heavy plows pushing through 6-foot drifts on Pitts Memorial Drive like it was a wilderness ice road instead of a major arterial highway gave everyone notice that it was going to be more than a normal storm weekend. Digging out cars downtown was a two-day treasure hunt—assuming you could get out of your house at all. Wide roads were reduced to tiny paths and slender lanes were reduced to a network of winding, labyrinthine tunnels stretching door to door. It was at this point that the province sheepishly requested the military step in and help the overwhelmed capital city with its snow problem.
(It is difficult to overstate the difficulty of this decision. Making fun of Toronto for calling in the army one winter after a bad storm was the go-to joke for all Newfoundlanders who knew enough to hate Toronto but were not familiar enough with Canada’s most self-important city to mock it for anything specific, like lining up for novelty ice cream or Garfield Eats.)
But it was on the third day that the public began to grow restless. Cabin fever was setting in. Smokes and Pepsi were running low, everyone still had a driveway to clear out, and we were slated to imminently get another 10 to 15 cm of sloppy snow with the consistency of wet cement. (It has since frozen into the consistency of dried cement.) Gas stations and pharmacies were allowed to open to sell essential fuel and medicine, but when the entire neighbourhood is politely stampeding into the store looking for a pack of darts or a half case, “essential goods” takes on a meaning of its own. Impromptu bazaars break out on Facebook as everyone is looking to barter their lives for another precious draw.
Having now lived for the better part of a week under the suspension of ordinary social life, I am more convinced than ever that the four key resources of Newfoundland life are cigarettes, beer, Pepsi, and chips. Control the corner stores, control the Island, control the world. (I stood in line for an hour to buy a case of Coke Zero and some milk, so I begrudge no one making a trip to restock on their vices. If anything, I now know to stock up on cigarettes before an emergency and become a kind of post-apocalyptic moneylender.)
But the extra layer of fun to all this is that the St. John’s metropolitan area is covered by a patchwork of different town councils. As time passed, not everyone was still under the same restrictions. In the sleepy suburbs of Mount Pearl and Paradise, stores were opening sooner and longer while St. John’s was still under lockdown. A legal (if discouraged) joyride down Topsail Road could land you a $1,000 fine if you strayed too far past the invisible frontier at Sobey’s Square. Police guarded the roads in and out of town lest anyone make a break for the border in search of pull-tabs. If you squint hard enough and ignore the many tons of evidence to the contrary, you could almost be forgiven for saying it seems like martial law. (It is not martial law.)
As we stretch into day five, all novelty has officially worn off. Grocery stores and other food depots have been opened temporarily so people can replenish supplies. Five days trapped inside with small children or silently resentful spouses is enough to make someone genuinely excited by the prospect of visiting the Thunderdome today. Doors didn’t open until 10 a.m. but people were staking out the parking lots as early as 7:30 a.m. The weather has held steady for the past few days and the roads are, slowly but surely, clearing up. Schools are still shuttered for the rest of the week, but there are signs the state of emergency—fingers crossed—might be winding up.
Most of us will be happy to see this storm and its aftermath fade from memory. But whenever this fully ends, its effects are going to linger for some time. Even if we don’t get another major snowfall this winter—a big if!—the mountains of snow already piled around the city are going to be causing problems any time the wind blows.
We’re also going to need to start thinking harder about the next state of emergency—because all signs suggest extreme weather events like this will only become more frequent. There will be a lot of assessments after this one ends. Did having a half-dozen different municipalities in the same area handle their own emergency affairs work? Or do we need a county system (or the provincial government) to step in and coordinate things instead? How secure is our food supply? Who decides which goods, services, citizens, and workers are “essential” during a crisis, and how do they decide it? How can we be better prepared for this in the future? How much of our social cohesion is built on politeness to each other and deference to (imagined) authority? And how many days of back-to-back snow-shovelling will it take to make those bonds snap?
The last point, at least, doesn’t worry me too much anymore. You learn a lot about yourself and your community when ordinary life is interrupted. Thanks to five days without personal car travel or stores to find supplies, my normally soulless suburban street has become an actual neighbourhood. The first time we dug out the driveway, a man who’d lived up the road his whole life stopped to make small talk and filled me in on the whole history of the neighbourhood. We gave onions to the sweet Scottish lady next door so she could make some Burns Day haggis. Roving bands of Good Samaritans combed the streets digging out cars to speed the snow-clearing. In every way, it is a truly exceptional event.
The state of emergency has prompted the emergence of something deeper than the state. After five days of taking back our city from the snow, I have a new appreciation for why the lines “we love thee frozen land” appear in the Ode to Newfoundland.
Nobody lives here for the weather. But sometimes you need the weather to show you all the other reasons why you’re more than happy to stay.
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.