I don’t want to make light of the cold snap sweeping the eastern half of the country. I know it’s dangerous and I hope everyone reading is warm and safe.
That said, the issue here isn’t the cold. It’s the level of preparedness. I spent two winters in Iowa while getting my MA at Iowa State in Ames. And I’m here to tell you, what the rest of you are calling a “polar vortex” Iowans call “January.” Those who have been around me when the subject of cold weather came up at any point since 1989 have heard this rant. Probably word for word.
You simply don’t know what cold is. We had a week one time – January or February of 1988, I think – where the high temperature was -5º. Not wind chill, but temperature. For the week. And that was the daytime high. One night I was working the 10pm-2am shift at KUSR, the campus radio station, and the temp was something like -20º and the wind was gusting at 40mph and it was humid. I don’t know for sure how the math works but it felt like -90º wind chill. I’m telling you, there is nothing between Ames, Iowa and the North Pole to slow the wind down.
Of course, the truth is that -90º doesn’t actually feel much different from -30º. I mean, numb is numb, right? The main difference is how many seconds it takes for exposed flesh to start falling off your body.
A few days later the Arctic chill let up. I remember leaving the house to go to school and it was noticeably warmer. I thought that if it kept warming up it might be shirtsleeve weather by 2:00. On the drive in the radio station did the weather. It was 0º. 0º with no wind actually felt warm.
Looking back it’s possible that I may be remembering things a tad more extremely than the meteorological data will support. If so, apologies for exaggerating. But I’m not exaggerating much, I promise you, and if you know Iowans don’t take my word for it – go ask them.
All of which is to say, I’m looking at the temperatures being reported around the country and thanks to those two winters in the 9th circle of hell I have a different idea about what constitutes cold. Heck, I spent a lot of time while I was married in Gunnison, CO (where my ex-wife is from). Gunnison is frequently the coldest place in the nation, with nighttime temps dipping under -20º. But it’s dry and when the wind isn’t blowing it’s not that bad.
I guess the point here is technical, and perhaps tediously so. But the problem America has right now isn’t that it’s cold, which it is. It’s that places that aren’t used to it are being subjected to your routine, garden variety Iowa cold and they aren’t prepared for it. Think of this as a winter variant on the old “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” line that makes you want to punch people during summer. So bundle up. Layers – lots of layers. And maybe a warm dog.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go walk to school. Six miles. Uphill. Both ways.