Watching As It Happened

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Polar vortex death toll rises to 21 as US cold snap continues (BBC.com)

I kind of get the old stereotype about older women who watch the Weather Channel non-stop, but I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable about it because, for much of her life, Mom was one of those women. After we first got cable television, news and information shows quickly became Mom’s go-to when there wasn’t anything else on; she kept the living room television tuned to either Headline News or the Weather Channel most of the day, although as the news gradually became more depressing for her (and the rest of us), Headline News fell to the wayside, and the Weather Channel became the lone “default” channel. (These days, news channels and weather channels almost seem to be in a competition to see who can be the most apocalyptic, and given what’s been happening on this planet in recent years, who can blame them?)

What eventually soured Mom to the Weather Channel was when they stopped doing straight weather reportage, and started adding “reality” shows related, however tangentially, to weather. Since Mom wasn’t that comfortable navigating modern technology, it was kind of hard for her to understand that since so many of us can get weather reports whenever we want, whether through websites or our personal smart devices, there isn’t as much need for a cable channel to provide current weather information twenty-four hours a day. (Yes, the Weather Channel does run an all-local-conditions service called Weatherscan, but Toledo’s big asshole cable company never provided that channel when Mom was alive, and it looks like Weatherscan is about to be discontinued anyway.) Mom still tuned to the Weather Channel for a few minutes every day, and sometimes watched it when big storms were on the way in, but she wasn’t one of “those” Weather Channel viewers for the last years of her life.

One of the YouTube videos I never got to show Mom, that I thought she might have had some interest in, is a recording of a Weather Channel local forecast for Gulfport, Mississippi in the hours before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005. I can still remember watching the news about Hurricane Katrina and wondering what it must have been like for people in New Orleans who were realizing that “the big one” was finally going to hit them; that local forecast may be one of the most fascinating pieces of evidence there is about how technological automation has been affecting our lives since the turn of the millennium. There’s just something poetically unnerving about the pre-recorded voice informing viewers that winds are about to reach 150 miles per hour, in the same tone it would use for a calm summer day on the Gulf Coast, and then ending with its cheerful announcement of the forecast for “the week ahead.” (Also, please count me among the many who think that the Weather Channel needs to use its hurricane music from that year for every hurricane season.)

A few weeks ago, when the long-range forecasts started saying that this past week would be historically cold for all of us here in the upper midwest, I couldn’t help wondering how Mom would have reacted. Given how protective she was of me, it wouldn’t have surprised me if she’d ordered me to call off work for the whole week, drive down to Missouri and just tuck myself away in a hotel there until the weather warmed up again. Especially as the forecast low for Thursday morning kept dropping and dropping, and warnings about frostbite happening in just five minutes became more ubiquitous, I knew that Mom probably would have felt sick about the weather in Wisconsin, even if I hadn’t been here.

I was more than a little worried about the weather myself; even with all the tales I’ve heard about winters here, the fact that we were about to get hit with historically cold weather for even this part of the country was more than enough reason to be concerned about what could happen. Everything from water pipes freezing to heaters giving out was a distinct possibility, and there was no way of knowing how safe the buildings on campus would be because they’d never had to deal with that kind of cold before.

The fact that even the universities in this part of Wisconsin closed down for two and a half days should tell you just how bad things got . Since I had some unexpected time off, I spent more than a little time following the coverage of not just the local effects of this historic cold, but also how it’s affected this whole part of the country. I managed to get through it all without losing power or heat or anything like that, but others weren’t so lucky, and I’m guessing that the final death count from this bout with a polar vortex will likely tick up even higher when all is said and done.

I was asleep when the temperature here hit rock bottom early Thursday morning, but I did get to watch the Weather Channel for a little while before I went to bed that night, when the temperature was about 25 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). Hearing Jim Cantore’s pre-recorded voice tell me that fact wasn’t quite as unnerving as that Hurricane Katrina local forecast, and part of that may have been because I was so concerned about what would happen if we lost power and/or heat, but the fact that I was literally just a few feet away from all that cold air probably affected my feelings as well. As catastrophic as Hurricane Katrina was, I was far enough removed from it that I can scarcely imagine what it was like for people who had to live through it, hearing local forecasts like the one that’s been uploaded to YouTube and realizing that was the reality about to descend on them. Even though I was able to hole up here in my apartment for a few days while the worst of the cold passed through, that was still far too close for my comfort. The local forecasts I listened to last week weren’t some reports from half a country away; they were the reality that I, and everyone else around here, had to deal with, and I know just how fortunate I am that I had the means to get through that life-threatening weather in relative comfort.

There will probably be YouTube videos of Weather Channel local forecasts from here in Wisconsin in recent days for you to look at soon. While the financial devastation and loss of life are likely to be only a fraction of those of Hurricane Katrina, I can tell you that this polar vortex event was still a very worrisome one to go through, and I hope I never have to deal with anything like that ever again. Maybe watching the Weather Channel so much last week wasn’t all that necessary, but beyond just satiating my own curiosity about what was happening, I know that Mom would have done the same thing. In a way, it kind of helped me feel closer to Mom for a while, and that’s a whole lot better than getting a few days off from work.

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