Naming storms in Britain and Ireland

The Met Office, weather forecasters to the U.K., has started naming storms. We’re not talking about hurricanes, just storms big enough to stand out. The idea is that if they have names the public will take more notice of them, and presumably of the danger they pose, and I’d love to make fun of that but as far as I can tell it works. Sad, isn’t it, not to make fun of something just because it’s sensible?

Here’s my evidence that naming works:

When I started writing this, we were waiting for storm Frank to hit. That means I wasn’t just sitting around waiting for some nameless storm, I was waiting for something with more definition than a bunch of unnamed isobars, however tightly packed, on a weather graphic. Frank didn’t pose any particular threat this far south, but we were expecting a bit of drama and I’m a sucker for finding out what’s going to happen next. Without the name, though, I’m not sure I’d have been so consciously keeping an eye out for it.

Borderline relevant photo: Boscastle in the evening--and more to the point summer--light.

Borderline relevant photo: Boscastle in the evening–and more to the point summer–light.

Back when I lived in Minnesota, we didn’t have an official naming system for storms, but a few got themselves named anyway, and those names give me a hook to hang my memories on.

The Superbowl Blizzard hit during a major football game. I never watch football—I have a serious sports allergy and, sorry folks, I just can’t—but the name means the storm has stayed well defined in my memory. I doubt an unnamed storm would be. The weather had been spookily warm just before the blizzard, and it rained. Then the temperature dropped so quickly that water froze in the storm drains and on the streets. That was followed by a heavy snow, which (do I even need to say this? oh, why not?) fell on top of the ice. The driving was lethal and the walking wasn’t much better.

I was driving cab at the time and had a sort of roommate (we rented a house that split neatly into two apartments, hence the sort of) whose brother came over to get snowed in with us. Minnesotans do that, at least at a certain age. In the morning, none of our cars started—it was too cold. let’s say it was 30 below, but understand that I’m inventing the number. Think of it as a poetic way to say it was brutally cold. I caught a cab to work so I could drive a different cab back and jump all three cars.

That’s one of the things about driving cab. No one really knows what you’re doing once you leave the garage.

Jumping the cars didn’t help—that’s how cold it was. But by then I’d taken the cab out and there was nothing for it but to put in a day’s work. I don’t remember if I made much money—probably not, because although almost no cabs were on the road and every third person in town wanted to get somewhere without risking their own car, the driving was slow, and you can’t make much if the driving’s slow. Still, I remember that day’s work as sublime. Snow brings a special kind of silence to a city, and a sense of gentleness. I passed a man skiing down Cedar Avenue near Lake Street. Almost no one was around except for him and me and one car, stopped at a red light.

In a heavy storm, Minneapolis normally begins clearing and salting the major streets even before the snow stops falling, but the storm had overwhelmed them. The streets that had been plowed were as icy as the ones that hadn’t been. The few cars that were on the streets moved in slow motion, because the only way to stop on ice is very, very slowly. What accidents I saw happened equally slowly, almost as if we were all wrapped in cotton wool.

Would I remember that as clearly if the storm didn’t have a name? The images would still in my head, but I doubt I’d remember that they were from that same storm.

The other named storm that hit Minnesota while I lived there was the Great Halloween Blizzard, which hit before any small storms had given the city a reason to salt the streets. That meant the pavement hadn’t built up a salty residue. (I should admit that the city stopped using actual salt years before this period, but let’s call it salt. It sounds better than non-specific ice-melting chemicals.) So we had a wet, heavy snow hitting bare asphalt and welding itself to it. The first layer of snow packed down to a thick layer of ice, then more snow piled up on top of it. Again, the city was overwhelmed by the storm. And again, the temperature dropped dramatically.

Coming so early in the season, the whole thing took people by surprise. A student in a writing class I taught told me he lost two lawn chairs and a lawnmower under the snow. He’d taken a break in his mowing and—well, I don’t know how long the break was but by the time he went back out it was pretty clear that he wasn’t going to finish the lawn until spring. By which time I doubt he’d be using the mower he started with.

Trick or treaters came to our door that year wearing winter jackets over their costumes.Plus snow boots and gloves and hats and gloves. Unless they had a mask, you had to take it on faith that they’d put on a costume. But not many ventured out. Around 8, a small knot of teenagers showed up, saying, “We’re the last ones. Why don’t you give us whatever you have left?”

They were so outrageous about it, and so damned cheery, that I gave them almost all the candy in the bowl, keeping only a few bits of in case they were wrong.

When the city finally plowed and salted, instead of clearing the streets they made potholes in the ice, and cars crept and bounced through rush hour after rush hour. It was weeks before traffic started moving normally.

I’d remember the storm even without a name because it hit the same day that my 90-year-old father was hospitalized in New York with meningitis. It was days before I could get out of Minneapolis to see him. (He did recover.) But if the storm hadn’t found its own name, I’d have remembered it with a more private name—the Storm When Dad Got Meningitis. That’s a testimonial to the power of names, and to our need for them.

Which brings us back to this current naming project. The U.K. and Ireland are collaborating on it, since the two countries are parked in the Atlantic like a car and a truck, and if a storm hits one it’s likely to hit the other next. Collaboration strikes me as significant, because British weather forecasts ignore the Republic of Ireland. They tell us what the weather will be for Northern Ireland, but across that border into the Republic? Silence. It’s as if Britain’s still sulking that Ireland went independent and by god it’s not going to acknowledge any Irish weather. I don’t notice this so much when I’m listening to the radio. The various regions of Britain get mentioned and I almost never catch the one I’m listening for because either my mind wanders or the puppy starts barking or the oven explodes or the phone rings or, you know, life interferes in one of the many glorious ways it has. But it is noticeable on TV because Ireland’s right there on the BBC weather map but no weather ever touches it. Northern Ireland? Yes, it gets wind, sun, rain, all that stuff. But the republic? Nope. It doesn’t have weather.

I know the Irish aren’t the BBC’s target audience, but still. I’ve heard France mentioned in weather forecasts. I’ve heard the word Spain. But Ireland? Silence.

That must make this collaboration over storm names interesting. Or maybe the word I’m looking for it tense.

But even without the BBC’s ban on Irish weather, the politics of naming storms would have to be tricky. How many names will be Gaelic and how many English? Does each country get so many names per head? Do they have to take account of the number of Irish names that are of English instead of Gaelic origin? Or does each country get to pick the same number of names? Will either country acknowledge the presence of immigrants by picking a name from some third or fourth language group?

Listen, everything’s political. Breakfast cereal is political. A length of blue ribbon is political. My fingernails are political.

Here in Cornwall, Frank didn’t turn out to be anything special. We’ve had so much rain lately that it’s hard to tell one storm from the others. Even the named ones are basically water landing on top of more water. Mercifully, none of them have done worse than leave us wet and wind-blown. But farther north it brought flooding and misery to places that hadn’t recovered from earlier flooding and misery. I’ll have to hear from someone up there to know whether having a name for the storm made them any more aware of it ahead of time or if it only gave them a better way to talk about it.

British weather: is everything bigger in the U.S.?

From the July 3 Western Morning News I learned that Americans call the July full moon the Thunder Moon.

We do? I never did. I checked with Wild Thing and she’d never heard of it either. The only moon I ever heard given a name was the harvest moon, and that was only because of the song, “Shine on, etc.” And the writer William Least Heat-Moon, and he’s a person, not a celestial body.

As you might guess, the Westy isn’t the most news-driven of papers, but unless Wild Thing and I are the only two Americans who never heard of a Thunder Moon I’d expect a bit more in the way of fact checking.

Having said that, we’d just had a thunderstorm here in North Cornwall and lost power for a few minutes, and it had led us to compare Midwestern thunderstorms to the ones we’ve seen in the U.K. which strike us as short on drama.

Irrelevant photo by Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant photo by Ida Swearingen

I know, I know. I sound like one of those everything’s-bigger-in-America kind of Americans. I’m not, I swear. I could give you a list of things that weren’t any bigger, but maybe it’s enough to say that I wasn’t. The storms, though? They were. The thunder here rumbles instead of crashes. The lightning tends to stay in the clouds instead of striking down. Yes, we’ve seen lightning strikes since we moved here, but they’re rare, and because of that, memorable. We stood on the cliffs once, watching lightning strike down into the ocean. I was riveted and would have stayed longer but Wild Thing reminded me that we were the tallest things on the cliffs (which is a comment on how low the vegetation is, not on how tall we are) and we’d be the most likely targets when the storm got closer. I was tempted to argue that we had plenty of time but good sense and kindness got the better of me and I followed her to the car.

I do miss those Midwestern thunderstorms. They gather all the energy from half a continent’s heat, then let it loose.

The tornadoes, on the other hand, I wasn’t so crazy about. Wild Thing spent a lot of childhood summers in Oklahoma, in what’s called Tornado Alley, and since she’s lived through plenty of tornadoes she’s convinced she will again. I’ve never been as sure of that. Even after forty years of living with them, when the sirens went off, my body sent out panic signals that didn’t bother to consult my brain.

In spite of that, I never managed to memorize which siren meant this is an early warning and which one meant get to the basement and stay terrified till you hear from us again.

We only went to the basement once. We gathered up the dog and found the cats were already in place. They know. Our basement wasn’t—how can I say this and not sound panicky? It wasn’t a place you’d want to be trapped if the house collapsed on top of you. We believed that basements should be cleaned every twenty years, whether they need it or not, but this being year nineteen we were still coasting. So it would be us, the dog, the cats, the dirt, the junk, the litter boxes, the asbestos lining that was, back then, still in place on our old, old furnace, and who knew what else. On top of that, water leaked in through the walls in heavy storms. Our neighborhood was built—we found out after we bought the house—on what had once been a swamp and wanted to be a swamp again. After a heavy storm, you could walk the alleys and know who had a finished basement by the rolls of soaked carpet waiting to go to the dump. So I pictured the house collapsed on top of us and all our dirt, junk, kitty litter, and asbestos, with the water rising—

And I couldn’t remember which corner they advised hiding in. The southwest? The southeast? Or was it under the stairs?

I looked under the stairs. Some old storm windows were stashed there, so add broken glass to the list.

I was tempted to take my chances upstairs. At least I’d die clean. Then the all clear went off and it all became a funny story.

Tornadoes are strange beasts. They can drive a piece of straw through a tree. They can lift up a house, drop a car in the basement, then put the house back down more or less on top of it. Not undamaged, mind you, but still in place. One that touched down in the Twin Cities picked a bunch of fish out of a Minneapolis lake and dropped them in a St. Paul suburban mall’s parking lot. You could almost think the storms have a sense of humor, although the fish weren’t amused.

Last January, a tornado touched down in London. No, make that a suspected tornado. The damage was minimal (I wouldn’t say that if my garage that been hit, but still, given what’s possible, yes, it was minor) and it wouldn’t have been national news if they weren’t so rare.

The storms you’re used to set your expectations of what storms are. Any tornado in Britain is newsworthy. And the thunderstorm that got us talking about how mild they are here? A couple of friends commented on how wild it had been.

Which brings me back to the Westy and its conviction that Americans call the July moon the Thunder Moon. If anyone’s ever heard it called that, I’d love to know.

Winter in Cornwall, Winter in Minnesota

It’s winter here, and it’s behaving the way winter does in Cornwall. I can’t bring myself to say it’s cold.

I lived through forty Minnesota winters, but through all that I never really was a Minnesotan, I was a transplanted New Yorker, but there’s nothing like transplanting myself again to let me know exactly how much of a Minnesotan I became. Because this isn’t cold. It’s chilly, yes, but that’s as far as I can go.

A quick break here for anyone who’s not sure where Minnesota is: Fold the US in half from north to south and it’s right there on the fold, up by the Canadian border. Okay, more or less on the fold. I haven’t actually tried this, but you get the idea. It’s inland, it’s north, and it’s cold beyond anything I ever imagined as a kid in New York City.

Minneapolis after a 15-inch storm in 2010. The Metrodome roof collapsed under the weight of the snow. Again.

Not Cornwall. This is Minneapolis after a 15-inch storm in 2010. The Metrodome roof collapsed under the weight of the snow. Again. Photo by Kevin Jack

Minnesotans talk about Minnesota macho, and that doesn’t have anything to do with bullfights or bar fights or street fights, it has to do with the cold. The high school kids who wait bare headed for the bus at twenty below, their ears daring the frost to bite them? They’re an emblem of Minnesota macho. The auto mechanic I used to know who refused to own gloves (or a hat, while we’re at it), even when he had to work on a car outside in January? You got it. We all had our own version of it, even those of us who went out in so many layers of clothes that we couldn’t lower our arms to our sides. We might look like giant fire hydrants, but we all found some small way to defy the cold—or to tell ourselves we had. Some days, just getting to work qualifies you: You dig out the car; you start the car; you drive the car over ice or snow without having a wreck. Or you wait for the bus. It’s heroic, all of it. There are days when you’d be forty degrees warmer (that’s Fahrenheit) it you sat in your refrigerator. And you could have a snack while you were at it.

Minnesota winters drive people to all sorts of extremes. If you talk about getting cabin fever, everyone knows what you mean: You’ve been stuck inside too long and you’re getting a little strange. When I worked for a writers organization, we gave the winters credit for the number of writers the state produced. This year’s winter has driven P. to working literary jigsaw puzzles. He writes, “As Ezra Pound wrote, ‘Winter is icumen in. Lhude sing goddamn.  Stoppeth bus and sloppeth us. Sing goddamn,’ etc.

“If April with his shoures soote pierces the drought of March, it’ll be a fooken miracle.”

Umm, yes. I guess that’s true. But I’m in Cornwall, and last night we had (gasp, wheeze) a frost. Yes, folks, the temperature dipped one or two horrifying degrees Fahrenheit below freezing. Not only that, some white stuff fell out of the sky in the late afternoon, and since it didn’t stick I’m willing to admit that it looked very pretty while it did it. And the weather folk on radio and TV were all cranked up about it: Cold! Snow!

Well, okay, north of here the weather may be doing something vaguely serious. I’m not there and I can’t say. Cornwall’s the southern bit of the UK, where Britain sticks its toe into the Atlantic, so it’s warmer than the rest of the country. But I listen to the weather forecasts and I swear, even after eight—almost nine—years, I fall for it. I’m ready to wrap myself in a quilt before I go out, since I gave away my winter coat when I left Minnesota and my current one would barely stand up to a Minnesota spring. Then I look at the numbers and realize I’ll be fine. Last night we slept with the window open (that’s for one of the cats; he campaigns all night if he’s locked in), and no heat, thanks. It was fine.

So when someone says, “It’s cold,” as surely they will at some point during the day, I’ll manage to say, “It is chilly.” And I’ll make it sound agreeable, almost as if I’m agreeing, but I’m not exactly.