Sunday, January 5, 2014

Frozen wonderland without borders

"Do you have any ice salt?" I asked the woman at the Canadian Tire store.
"No, all out."
"When will you have more?"
"Don't know. Going to take some time. The truck is coming direct from Montreal, eh?"

When travelling for my annual Canadian winter visit, I never expected ice salt to become the most sought after commodity during the Christmas season. But people were searching all over Toronto for at least a bag or two.

"I hear you have ice salt," I said to the man in the long black coat hiding behind the Canadian Tire store.
"Shh, not so loud," he said. "Sure, I can sell you a few bags."
"How much?"
"Twenty-five dollars a bag."
"Twenty-five dollars! That's five times the list price!"
"You want it or not?"
"Sure, I'll take two bags."

I should have expected something when a rare snow blizzard hit Jerusalem, closing the city down completely for two days. It rarely snowed in Jerusalem, and when it did, it was nothing like this. Not only was the power knocked out in many places, but the roads were closed and cars stranded all over. The people of Jerusalem felt quite helpless. "Where is the government?" they asked. "Why didn't they prepare for this? You never hear about this happening in a civilized nation!"

Even when I landed in Canada a couple of days later during a blizzard, I still didn't expect anything extremely out of the ordinary.
"We Canadians aren't stopped by such things," I bragged to my Israeli wife and children in an email after completing the perilous drive from the Pearson International Airport to my mother's house in Scarborough. "We drive right through it."

And shovelling snow at five the next morning to battle jet lag didn't dampen my enthusiasm.
"Good to experience a real Canadian winter for once," I thought, remembering my visits of Christmases past when little snow was on the ground.

The weather reports did nothing to prepare us for what was to come, either.
"The end of the week may be a little tricky," the weatherman announced, "with a mixture of rain and snow."

Then the first ice storm hit. It, in itself, wasn't that irregular. We were used to having to avoid ice covered sidewalks at times, forced to find traction through snow laden lawns instead. But it was a small taste of what was to come.

"Another, quite bigger ice storm in on the way," we were told.
They still didn't use the term epic, although they would soon. Nor did they say that this was the mother of all ice storms, although this was hinted at in many different ways over the days to follow. Most of the weathermen had become increasingly gun shy after making too many wrong predictions over the previous weeks and didn't want to take the chance of being open to further ridicule.

I don't know what we really expected to happen, as most of us were about to experience something for the first time. What did happen is that we woke up to a winter wonderland: a wonderland of ice. Trees, cars, buildings... everything was covered by a thick layer of ice. Events were cancelled, people were told not to go outside. And the only ones who dared venture outside were mostly kids on skates, skating over frozen streets and lawns, setting up makeshift hockey rinks wherever they desired.

It was then that we began to take notice of an ominous cracking noise, which seemed to come from almost every direction. Soon trees began to fall under the weight of the ice, branches breaking off onto power lines, through the ceilings of houses, and crushing the tops of cars. Soon the estimates came in: over 300,000 households and establishments without power. Many people no longer concentrated on Christmas, but were concerned mostly with just how to survive the bitter cold until the power came back on. And it slowly became evident that this wouldn't be for days.

And as the days went by without power, food thrown out because there was no way to refrigerate it, and people having no way to heat their houses in the -15 degree weather (celcius) - people began to ask: "Where is the government? Why weren't they prepared for such a thing?"

In the end, they got everyone hooked up again to the power... until the next time. Some people had gone without power for more than seven days.

And for those of us who thought we could drive through anything, we had now acquired a much greater respect for the winter, and were in much greater awe of a Mother Nature who could so easily humble and bring us to our knees at a moment's notice. For, despite all of our technologies, it only took one really bad storm to send us temporarily back to the Stone Age. And it didn't matter whether you were in Canada, Israel or the Arctic Circle. Mother Nature has a very long reach.

So, the next time you have something to say about Mother Nature, you had better be nice, or be ready for the outcome.

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