The following reflection was written on February 28, 2014 but for some reasons was not published at the time. I am posting it now in the midst of the extreme cold weather front that is gripping Canada and the United States.
The view from Blantyre
By TONY SEED
WHEN extreme weather event strikes, the reporting of the media proceeds from the premise of the insurance companies: it is a supernatural “act of God,” a natural disaster divorced from the social conditions made by man. It has become a genre and given a name – disaster journalism. It was all so “unexpected.” Hurricane Katrina? Just blew in suddenly from the Gulf. That ice storm in Atlanta? The weather suddenly shifted upstate in the morning. That tsunami in the Indian Ocean? No-one at the U.S. Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii had the phone number of the Sri Lanka president and hence the island received no warning. Thousands of people, mainly poor fishers, along the eastern and southern coastline were engulfed by the deep blue sea, as if an act of Buddha. Due to the large number of victims, that far-off disaster did make the evening news. These were not “accidents”; natural disasters became crimes.
The “journalism” unfolds, paying occasional lip service to the human factor, from stenographic reports of the stoicism of the first responder, to individual acts of selfless generosity or even heroism, to “debates” amongst the bourgeois politicians as to whether or not an “emergency” exists, or how to militarize aid as they jockey to use disaster for self-serving ends. Then they pass on to the next happening and “accident. “Weather” is defined in a limited way: cloudy, clear, cold, and warm. The weather is reported the way politics is reported: isolated daily particulars unconnected to the larger structural and meteorological forces that help create them. The media’s most common method of distortion is omission. We are misled not only by what is reported but by what is left unmentioned. That is true even with weather reports, Michael Parenti once pointed out in an insightful essay back in the 1990s.*
So it was on Thursday, February 27th. Vicious whiteouts caused by lake effect snow squalls suddenly enveloped several provincial highways in Ontario, leading to multiple vehicle collisions and pile-ups such as the 96-car-and-tractor trailer doozy on the 400 Hwy outside Innisfils, south of Barrie.
That was the route I had planned to take to Toronto. It was the devil’s choice. But perhaps a safer and surer choice once I got off the No. 26 leading away from Georgian Bay south to the 400, rather than taking the old No. 10 that proceeds south from Owen Sound to Shelbune and then to the 410.
Lake effect (the main cause of whiteouts) is a natural and intriguing phenomenon. Snow squalls occur when cold air driven by high winds in cold weather moves over large bodies of water. The cold air mixes with moisture creating blinding driving conditions. Such squalls are common in southern Ontario, which is relatively flat and surrounded by the Great Lakes. The influence of auto exhaust, industrial air pollution, and other fossil fuel emissions acting like a blanket to create and trap heat close to the earth’s surface, causing it to warm, on lake effect is beyond me for now. It also passeth my understanding as to how one day it can be snowing on the Grey Highlands, where I reside, and be absolutely clear 300+ metres below, and the next day vice versa; the temperature variable may be as much as 3-5 degrees Celsius from the foot of Scotch Mountain, part of the undulating Niagara Escarpment overlooking Georgian Bay, to the top of the escarpment, which is where I dwell.
As my deadline for departure came closer and closer I found myself procrastinating. We had had several days of brilliant sun and clear weather. I had been lulled. I had not even bothered to check the weather. It was bright and seemed so clear when I first got up. One of the less appreciated qualities of winter is that it reveals the true shape and contours of the land. That morning it seemed beautifully serene. The land unfolded from Scotch Mountain as far as Irish Mountain and the ice on Georgian Bay some twenty kilometres or more sheathed in a white coat broken into quilt-like patches of 50 and 100-acre fields by thin raggedy rows of forlorn fir, haughty oak and sugar maple.
I didn’t look out again until later in the morning; the car was now covered with snow, flakes were dancing frenziedly by my eyes in the wind, and I could not see more than a few hundred yards for the morning mist and fog. Was it actually snowing – or just blowing? A premonition began to form in my subconscious: the previous afternoon I had trouble driving back into the farm on the long lane from the road. The lane is exposed to the wind and, even after it’s been ploughed, it can be covered with drifting snow a metre or more deep in a matter of one or two hours. I’ve had two separate periods in January when I was able to get out to the road on just one day in an entire week. At times, with the temperature dropping to -29 degrees Celsius, encrusting the snow with a thin layer of shimmering ice, the severe nor’easterly wind that is so serene in the summer reminds me of the brutal expanses of the Siberian landscape portrayed in the film, Dr Zhivago. That’s what I call it – Dr Zhivago’s Memorial Lane. We have a lot more in common with Russia than a passion for ice hockey!
Neighbour Brian Tulloch says he hasn’t seen as much and as regular snow since he was a youth some thirty years ago. The wind is a brute. I have been stuck in snow drifts on that lane this winter more than the previous three winters combined. Then there’s those dramatic drifts of accumulated snow along the side of the county road, now soaring over 15 feet in height and still climbing. I vacillated and temporized. I was going for a medical appointment in Toronto that had taken six weeks to get. And no, my appointment was not for treatment of cabin fever, even though I’ve stupidly tried to befriend a feral cat that somehow found refuge inside the house. They say that one therapy for cabin fever may be as simple as getting out and interacting with nature. I do go out to talk regularly with the Zhivagos, but that doesn’t seem to be much of a curative as they seem indifferent to everyone but their own world. I had been slowly packing an overnight bag without speed or conviction. Finally some instinct told me to pull the plug. I rebooked with the clinic – having to wait another month – and began to rationalize my decision; after all, I had so much work that needed to be done in time. I made some late breakfast, turned on the TV and saw the carnage on Hwy 400: ninety-six vehicles.
A very important question that demands an immediate answer is why do these disasters continue to happen. The media is publishing sensational videos capturing the snow squall and graphic photos of the carnage, quoting the OPP that it could have been worse, and issuing advisories and tips post facto as to how to drive in a snow squall. It was all as if this was the first time this winter that a 400 highway had been shut down.
On the weekend of January 24-26, there were over 1,600 collisions across the province after blowing snow caused substantial drifts and whiteout, as a cold air mass settled over the region, yielding wind chill values of -25 to -30 C. On the No. 10, which was shut down, hundreds of people were stranded and given shelter in Shelburne. The Red Cross was called out.
But the factor made by man is conspicuous by its absence, although at the end of the day the massive accident on the 400 was attributed to people tailgating, i.e., cheating, aggressive driving and speeding. A hilarious new road song was spun, according to the tune of “96 beers on the wall;” “96 tailgaters driving on the ice. One slips off and bumps his head.” People are to be blamed. This is a criminal viewpoint. One can only imagine the devastation of human life had the drivers not been taking care and travelling slowly. The media narrative tangled with the reality cited by drivers: they were going slow; they had to get to work; they have a long commute each way each day; they are forced to such a drive by the cost of living. One of my neighbours, an expeienced man in his 60s, keeps his horse farm going by commuting each day to work in Brampton, a two-hour drive each way.
When the evening news tells us “what’s happening with the weather,” those potentially cataclysmic developments are not mentioned. “Weather” is defined in a limited way: cloudy and clear, cold and warm. The weather is reported the way politics is reported: isolated daily particulars unconnected to the larger structural and meteorological forces that help create them.
During the 1990s, which is not some ancient history, the Harris provincial government privatized the maintenance of the 400 series of highways and sold the 407 ETR toll highway to private interest, amongst other public assets such as Service Ontario and hydro/energy, which slashed the number of work crews available to emergencies, the consequence of which was seen recently in Toronto where residents suffered without power for up to two weeks. The highways were part of the infrastructure across Canada that is being privatized, to the extent that provincial ministers even examined a project to convert the Trans Canada Highway into a toll highway operated by private monopolies. Toll highways in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and a toll bridge to Prince Edward Island were constructed through “public-private partnerships”. In Ontario, upkeep of the highways was contracted out to private contractors, who stated they could never maintain the same level of service as the Ministry of Transport.
One of the items they cut back on was protective snow fences. Servicing of other roads was downloaded onto counties and municipalities. Further, alternative routes to the 400 series of highways that used to be provincial highways are now county and township roads, each with their own idiosyncratic pattern of plowing and maintenance. In my area we see an impossible dysfunction, whereby on one day Grey Road 12 (old No. 8), which is designated as a priority road, was closed by the county and the snow-covered No. 7 less than a mile to the east was left open by the town of Meaford. The weather info on the Internet is rarely complete. The local OPP office does not have a public phone nor is it accessible by the public. The door is always locked. It leaves you feeling quite helpless, unless by chance you know a letter carrier, who it seems are the only people whom know which roads are really open and how to traverse the county after a storm – or you talk to travellers or staff at the gas bar. The constant downsizing of the MOT and county work forces, reducing the number and the role of human beings who are actively involved in organizing to ensure that the operation of the highways and roads are safe, is at the centre of the wrecking of the highways and the disasters that happen with increasing frequency. It is human beings organizing to provide the problems of life with solutions that is key, not the brutality of nature, automated storm headlights on vehicles, tailgating and other things of that kind.
Winter whiteouts on the highways from Georgian Bay south to Toronto are common, especially on the Hwy. 26 as it traverses flat, open country between Collingwood and Stayner and then between Stayner and Barrie – not to overlook the flat farm lands along the No. 10 to Shelburne. And on the Hwy 400 as it passes Innisfils. Whiteouts on the Hwy 401 in the flat, open countryside of Southwestern Ontario are notorious. Whiteouts more often than not are sudden, as opposed to the Prairies where they seem to build momentum slowly. The discussion continues on how the highways are outdated and completely unsuitable for winter conditions. Yet despite these massive collisions, nothing has been done to concretely change the situation to ensure the safety of the people and the environment.
Two winters ago I had chosen to drive that route over the No. 10 in order to make our family’s get-together in Toronto to celebrate my most recent favourite niece’s 21st birthday. The road to Barrie was blocked at Stayner. The last straw – or squall – was when I took the 91 back to Duntroon, and then ventured down country road 124 south, enroute to Shelburne and the 410. A sudden gust enveloped my car with blinding snow that flew off a field atop a sharp hill beside the road. Fortunately I was aware there was no-one following me, braked and immediately pulled off to the side of the road. After six hours of trying successive north-south highways and county roads, I cried “Uncle!” and gave up. I turned around and retreated homewards. I phoned the county later to point out the problem, only to be told that budget didn’t permit fencing. Perhaps the memory of that adventure guided my decision yesterday to stay snug as a bug in a rug.
Reckless endangerment of human life and the environment
As far as travellers are concerned, the situation is very serious, where governments have openly abdicated any social responsibility to defend public right and restrict monopoly right. As deadly as a snow squall and a snow storm may be, it is the attrition caused by wind in rural areas denuded of natural forestation and vegetation that is a prime cause of the problem for winter driving in Canada. Farmers may use temporary snow fences to create large drifts in basins for a ready supply of water in the spring, but such an initiative to construct snow barriers will eat into the profits of the private road contractors and probably beyond their competence. One can put up snow fences just for the winter, such as the four-feet high, perforated orange plastic sheeting attached to stakes at regular intervals, which are fine until the snow reaches the top. But when the highway or road is subject to predictable snow and wind patterns each winter, permanent snow fences should be installed. The rationale is explained by Wikipedia: Snow fences work by making the wind slow down on the downwind side and near upwind side less than that on the far windward side, causing blown snow to settle to the ground, mostly downwind from the fence. Thus, snow fences actually cause snow drifts, rather than preventing them. The fences are placed back from the road to cause a snow drift, where it is not harmful, so that the snow does not drift onto the roadway.
Yet, along our county and provincial roads, all I ever see are occasional lines of closely spaced shrubs or conifer trees mainly planted by farmers or residents. Technically, a permanent snow fence may also consist of poles set into the ground with planks running across them – planted by this or that farmer.
Our farm at Blantyre in Grey Highlands is distinguished by having one of the two remaining original stone fences in the region; a monumental work of chiselled stone, it was built by hand in the late 1800s to separate the field from Grey Road 12. My late father used to insist that the grass in front of it along the road always be cut; it still is. And while drifts will sweep across the crest of Scotch Mountain, that stretch of Grey 12 a few hundred yards further north is always clear.
It is not nostalgia or sentiment that causes me to think that perhaps we should revisit some of those old solutions, but that some of the solutions to the anarchy, violence and chaos on the roads have existed for decades and are so well known outside the cities.
But then those responsible for the Harris “common sense revolution” are today the reactionaries and scoundrels privatizing Canada, deregulating transportation and the railways with the known tragic consequences to the people, preparing new impending criminal debacles, and everywhere blocking people from solving basic problems they face regarding the important and burning problems of the times. Like building fences stone by stone, that too is a problem solvable by socially-conscious humans, stone by stone. It is time to draw a line in the snow.
* In Michael Parenti, Dirty Truths: Reflections on Politics, Media, Ideology, Conspiracy, Ethnic Life and Class Power, (San Francisco) City Lights Books, 1996. IBSN 0-87286-317-4