January 3, 2009 in City

This winter’s not for wimps

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

John Cook shovels around his family’s minivan on Rockwood Boulevard in Spokane on Saturday.
(Full-size photo)

We’ve heard the point debated at holiday parties, in line at the grocery store and in letters to the editor:

Have we become a city of (gulp) snow wimps?

Have we turned into (heaven forbid) Seattle?

We’d love to adopt our grizzled Spokane old-timer attitude and answer: Hell, yes. This ain’t white death from the skies, people. It’s just winter. Stop whining, grab a shovel and get over it.

We can still present a case for that – see below.

However, the statistical evidence nudges us toward the opposite conclusion: We’re not being snow wimps, not this year. Even by grizzled Spokane old-timer standards, we’re dealing with one humongous pile of snow.

For perspective, we offer the following Spokesman-Review headline from the days when winter was winter and men were men:

Feb. 22, 1936: “DEEPEST 24-HOUR SNOW SINCE 1923 – HIGHWAY DEPARTMENT USES ALL EQUIPMENT TO BATTLE STORM.”

And how much snow were they talking about?

“6.6 INCHES OFFICIALLY RECORDED!”

Oh, please. We’ve got a news flash from the future for you, 1936 Spokane. During a 24-hour period on Dec. 17 and 18 of 2008, we had 19.4 inches, easily plowing our way past your lousy 6.6 inches, and then right on past the all-time 24-hour record of 13 inches set in 1950.

Our archives are laden with similar headlines from other winters. In all but a handful of cases, these “giant” snowstorms look positively wimpy by comparison.

Snowfall records can be divided into two categories. Think of them as the “sprint” records and the “endurance” records. We have already set a number of sprint records, including that 24-hour snowfall record. We also set the snowiest-month-Spokane-has- ever-seen record with a grand total of 61.5 inches in December 2008, easily breaking the January 1950 record of 56.9 inches.

As for the endurance records, we’ll have to wait and see. But, man, do we have a head start. This winter’s snowfall total stood on Friday at 69.2 inches. Or to put it another way, 5-foot-9. Or to put it yet another way, Tom Cruise has disappeared.

That big 1949-50 winter – the only one that truly makes this one look even slightly wimpy – holds Spokane’s total snowfall record at 93.5 inches.

But it’s only Jan. 4. We have plenty of time to snow-blow our way past that record, too. Not to depress everyone, but the 1949-50 snow total stood at only 17.4 inches as of Dec. 31, 1949. The bulk came in January and February. So this winter could easily break the all-time snowfall record unless it pulls the meteorological equivalent of “Coug-ing it” down the stretch.

However …

This is not to say we haven’t seen substantial evidence of wimpiness – or at least snow-alarmism – around the Inland Northwest. Businesses and government offices were shut down for days; TV newscasters pounded an incessant drumbeat of impending white doom; schools were canceled so quickly that previous generations of schoolchildren could only weep with the unfairness of it all.

Here are just a few of the more overt instances of Inland Northwest snow-alarmism:

• On the evening of Dec. 17, we were informed by the authorities and the TV stations that the South Hill was “closed.”

What? How can the South Hill be “closed”?

It wasn’t, of course. Most people with chains or four-wheel drive vehicles did what Inland Northwest veterans normally do. They ignored this “closure” and drove home.

• On one recent day, Spokane County told us to “avoid traveling in the western and southeastern portions of Spokane County.”

“Shelter in place if you are already home,” said a spokesman.

Otherwise, “please find alternative accommodations for the night!” (exclamation mark theirs).

What? Why not tell us to crawl under our desks and curl into a ball?

• Local business owners and employees made heroic – and usually successful – efforts to open up for shoppers in the crucial days before Christmas, only to turn on the radio and hear that authorities were urging everyone to “stay home and off the roads.”

“Everyone” was, of course, their customers.

And yes, we should feel like snow wimps when compared to the people who endured thousands of Inland Northwest winters without snowplows, snowblowers, Hummers or Helly Hansen outerwear. The Native American tribes of our region dug roomy winter pit lodges, covered the tops with skins and mats and ventured out on their excellent snowshoes to hunt. They managed to endure winters that probably would have at least matched this one in magnitude, if only records stretched back that far.

At least, most of them endured. The fact is, people died in bad winters.

Which brings us back to the question of whether we have become a city of snow wimps. It’s easy to adopt a gruff, tough attitude during an average winter when it snows six inches and people start complaining that their snowblower is on the fritz.

It’s a lot harder in a winter that matches anything ever seen by an old-timer; a winter that has caused roofs to buckle; and a winter that has, tragically, already buried one resident under its weight.

A classic bit of bumper sticker wisdom goes like this: “Old age ain’t for sissies.”

Let’s close this debate by rephrasing that slightly: The winter of 2008-09 ain’t for sissies.

Jim Kershner can be reached at (509) 459-5493 or by e-mail at jimk@spokesman.com.

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