What a Northerner Learned from a Southeast Snowstorm

Like many of you who have experienced snow many times in your lives, I once laughed at the idea of an entire region feeling anxious over the threat of a couple inches of snow.  Once I experienced my first taste of snow in Atlanta myself, however, I understand the struggle.  With Winter Storm Helena about to impact southern states, I thought now would be as good of a time as any to reflect upon my lessons learned from snow in the south.

Before we get into what I learned, there are a few things you should probably know about me.  First of all, I am most definitely NOT a meteorologist or any sort of winter weather expert.  I’ll leave any of the truly valuable information to our staff that has waaaay more winter weather expertise than I ever will.  Anything I’ve ever learned about weather comes from my Intro to Atmospheric Science course in college, the Sesame Street theme song, and sharing a building with the best weather experts in the business.  Secondly, I’ve lived up north for my entire childhood and some of my adult life (Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Ohio), so I was practically born with a snow shovel in hand (in fact, as disturbing as it may sound to some, I genuinely MISS shoveling snow).  I can ice skate, I build a mean igloo, and can pack perfect snowballs–I love this stuff.  For what it’s worth, I also took driver’s ed and had my learner’s permit during winter, so I literally learned to drive in winter weather.  And all of my perceived expertise wouldn’t help me when I finally moved to Georgia.

After I graduated college in 2007, I came down to Atlanta to work at my first “real” job at The Weather Channel.  The first couple of years were relatively uneventful as far as winter weather goes and then something strange happened–it snowed.  Except the first snow I experienced here, wasn’t snow…it was “snow”.  I was dumbfounded as I watched coworkers run to the large glass windows at our office and squeal with delight as they saw snow.  Me?  I didn’t see anything.  I got up to get a closer look and noticed that it was, in fact, snowing.  Barely.  I could literally count the individual snowflakes as they fell from the sky.  There are a lot of differences from living up north and living down south, but, at the time, this was one of the most bizarre.  To me, snow accumulates.  It covers the ground.  It makes the world an even more beautiful place (until, you know, cars start driving through it and it goes from a pretty untouched white to a messy, sloshy black).  It lasts longer than Chumbawamba’s career.

Sometime after that, the real thing happened.  I can’t remember what day of the week the snow started falling, all I remember is that I was visiting my girlfriend after work and had to park at the top of a hill because it was far too dangerous to drive down the hill.  In fact, there were other people parked at the top of the hill who were waiting up there to tell other apartment residents and visitors not to try to drive down.  Once I parked my car and started walking sliding down to my girlfriend’s apartment, I could see why residents were warning others.  There were cars strewn about, most of which were smashed into trees.  It wasn’t a pretty sight, unless you happened to be that Allstate Mayhem guy.  When I finally got to the apartment, I realized two things: 1) my legs were not in the proper shape to walk through the compressed snow down one giant hill and up another and 2) the roads in Atlanta are not treated the same way they are other places.

I tried to leave her apartment later that night to drive home, but by this point, there was literally no way I could get my car down either of the two exits to leave the area.  I was officially snowed in.  I made the trek back to her apartment (and my legs continued to feel the burn) and ended up staying the night.  And another night.  And another night.  There was no way off that hill for a full five days and I started to go stir crazy.  At first I didn’t realize why, and then it hit me: when it snowed up north, I had options.  For the most part, once the snow plows come through, you can still drive places.  I could visit friends, go to the movies, get food, go sledding, play in the snow, etc.  Where I was, I was just…stuck.  The roads aren’t treated for snow and there’s no giant supply of rock salt and plows that are waiting in the wings to save the day.  There also wasn’t quite enough snow for it to actually be fun to play in (I wish I took more pictures at the time, but I promise you that I saw the saddest collection of snowmen ever assembled in one place that week).  It was miserable.  And that’s when I learned my first lesson: not all snowstorms are created equal.  More on that in a minute.

Fast forward a few years and I found myself in a somewhat familiar situation.  This time around, everyone at work was getting a little concerned. Since we are all employees of The Weather Channel, we had a heads up that snow would likely be coming the following day and it could complicate traffic (for those of you who have never been to Atlanta, Atlanta traffic is notorious for already being congested…and that’s putting it mildly).  The night before the snow came, I gave my wife (a different person from earlier–this is a story about winter weather, not romance after all) a heads up that she should prepare for the snow.  She was going to be attending a conference in Atlanta with her coworkers and I warned her that she may want to leave early or pack a bag in case she had to spend the night somewhere other than home.  Spoiler alert: she did not take my advice.

The next day, people around the office started heading home around noon as snow began to fall.  And this time around there was real snow, not “snow” snow.  I lived about 12 miles from work and, after looking at traffic out the window, tried to beat the major rush home.  I did.  Sort of.  I called my wife as I hopped on the highway and told her that she should try to leave immediately.  She talked to some of her coworkers, one of whom had lived in Utah most of her life.  Being an “expert” on snow, her Utah coworker told my wife that there was barely any snow and there wouldn’t be any problems driving home.  So, while I started my journey home, my wife and all of her coworkers decided to finish up their conference before heading to their respective homes.  About three hours after my initial phone call, I finally made it 10 miles down the highway to my exit.  And that’s where the fun began.  The next three hours mostly involved me live-posting my experience on Facebook, much to the amusement of my northern friends.  I probably drove about 3/4 of a mile in those final three hours before I finally decided to give up, park my car, and walk the rest of the way home.

snow 2
At one point, this van was slightly behind me. After 20 minutes, someone pushed the van ahead of me. I immediately felt defeated.

On that walk, I met up with my sister who worked close to my apartment and decided to stay with us rather risk getting stranded on her way home.  We laughed about the situation, offered some help to those who needed it (it mostly involved us giving suggestions on what NOT to do as we watched people make some risky choices), and then finally made it back to my apartment to warm up.  I called my wife to see what her status was and, not surprisingly, she told me that she and her coworkers tried to drive home, made it down the street from the hotel where the conference was being held, and then had to turn around to go back to the hotel.  The good news is that, unlike a lot of people in Atlanta during that storm, she had a safe place to sleep.  The bad news is that she shared a hotel room with six of her coworkers, had no change of clothes (luckily she walked to a nearby Target to pick up supplies), and would not make it home for another two days.  Needless to say, she wasn’t happy.

snow 3
A group of fellow car abandoners.

As I talked to more family and friends who live around Atlanta and watched the news (and The Weather Channel, of course!), I heard so many stories–people getting stranded at work, a pregnant woman who got stuck on the highway and her husband walked several miles to come get her to walk her back home, another pregnant woman nearly giving birth in a car, kids getting stranded on school buses, adults struggling with where to go to the bathroom when you’re stuck in your car and going nowhere fast, etc.  There were also countless stories about people allowing complete strangers to stay in their homes, people bringing hot coffee to people stranded on roadways, etc.  It was a good reminder that there are a ton of genuinely awesome people out there willing to help out their communities in times of need.  It’s also a good reminder that you should always use the bathroom before traveling.

snow 4
Lucky for me, I had some snacks in my car during Snowpocalypse.

Eventually, my wife and I were reunited, strangers who were staying with other strangers eventually went back home, and life went back to normal as roads began to be plowed and salted.  Late night shows continued to poke fun at the south experiencing “Snowpocalypse” while I, along with many other people living down here, were stuck explaining to the general public that “no, you don’t understand…”.  After living through two majorly minor snow events in Atlanta, I was left with the following Snowpocalyptic lessons.  If you’re part of the southern region that may be affected by Winter Storm Helena this weekend, pay close attention.

  1. Snow totals are relative.  When I was in college, a foot of snow wasn’t enough to cancel classes.  Down here?  One inch of snow on the roads can shut the city down.  If an area doesn’t regularly expect snow, it’s tough to expect them to be prepared.  Understand this, northerners.
  2. Invest in a good ice scraper.  I’ve kept an awesome one I got in college in my trunk at all times.  During Snowpocalpyse, I had no problem at all scraping all the ice off of my car while I watched other people trying to scrape ice with spatulas, CDs, and other household items (don’t worry–I offered help to those who needed it).
  3. If you have a lot of snow on your car, brush it off.  If you’re not used to snow, you may not think of it, but all that snow sitting on the roof of your car will eventually fall off and can be dangerous to you and other drivers.
  4. ALWAYS go to the bathroom before you hop in the car.  You never know when a 25 min car ride will turn into an eight hour journey.
  5. Keep snacks with you.  You don’t want to to turn into Danny Trejo.
  6. If you don’t enjoy being snowed in with your significant other, he or she is probably not the one for you.
  7. If you have dogs who have never experienced snow, do yourself a favor and spend as much time outside with them.  If you don’t have dogs, creepily spy on a neighbor’s dog and see if he/she enjoys the snow.
  8. Ladies, this one is for you: ALWAYS listen to your husbands.  They know what they are talking about…sometimes 🙂
  9. It’s okay to appreciate a single snowflake.  Life is short.  Nature is amazing.  Enjoy it.
  10. If you know what you’re doing in snow, offer help.  I watched a lot of people do dangerous things trying to help others out because they didn’t know what they were doing.
  11. Pay attention to whatever weather source you trust (hopefully The Weather Channel).  If people are advising you to use caution, listen to them.
  12. Make sure you have a phone charger for your car.  You may need entertainment while you’re stranded.
  13. Fill up your gas tank before the snow hits.  You’ll thank me later!
  14. Take pictures.  They really help capture the memories in case, you know, you ever find yourself writing about your winter experiences.
  15. Invest in some board games.  You may have a lot of time to kill and this may be the only chance you’ll have to complete a game of Monopoly any time soon.
  16. Stay safe, but have fun! You never know when you’ll see snow again!

If you have your own tips, leave them in the comments below.  Stay safe this winter season!

 


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27 Comments


  1. Before any “disaster” (including Superstorm Sandy): Hit the ATM for cash, fill the gas tanks on all the vehicles, stock up on non-perishable provisions (including liquor, if that’s your thing). Have plenty of batteries & candles and a portable radio in case the power goes out for an extended period. This last one is more for ice storms…

  2. As a CT native, I shoveled enough snow to last me a lifetime, and when I became a Southerner, I made sure I went far enough south to never have to deal with the stuff personally again (now live in Ft. Myers, FL). But love watching it on tv! Enjoyed the story very much.

  3. What caused NYC to get a record snowfall last year was that the high pressure weakened allowing the storm to shift more westward, putting NYC in the heaviest band.

  4. Kevin L. Sealy

    The winter storm Saturday in NYC metro gave us more than expected. The forecast called for 2-4″. By noontime it was upgraded to a winter storm warning for Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk Counties. The totals were 5.1″ Central Park, 7″ LaGuardia, 8.2″ JFK (Jamaica Queen) and 11″ in Islip (Suffolk County). When it comes to forecasting snow events, it becomes a now casting forecasting. Any movement of 50 miles or so to the east or west could make a major difference in snow totals. The Blizzard on January 22-23 2016 6-12″ was predicted for NYC. Instead the city got a record breaking snow fall of 27.5″and JFK 30.5″ another record.

  5. And the fact that is goes from near 60 degrees, straight to 32 or below, snowing, and below zero in my city for four days, now going back to near 60 in a few days.
    It’s hard. Northern states don’t experience that too often!

    1. Blakewil94 – That is the nutty part this winter! I got sunburned again yesterday in 78 degree sunshine, and it’s 30 something tonight and tomorrow here. It’s crazy – Mother Nature is surely bipolar in WNC.

  6. As a southerner who lived “up north” for many years, my biggest learning about snow was this: northern snow seems to be much drier and don’t melt as fast as southern snow. Even in Michigan, a snow that melted to ice and reFroze wasn’t drivable. Of course, the ability to treat the roads was higher, but I could always get traction on a northern snow, where as a southern snow just seems more icy and thus, no traction.

  7. I loved the article. I had a boss from Boston that used to make fun of us for worrying about snow. He was not well liked. If you have nothing to scrape windows with use a credit type card. It does the trick. Keep your window washer fluid filled up too. Snacks are great to have but bring an extra drink along too.

  8. From a Ohioan that now lives in Tennessee near the mountains they can’t handle snow. My road and the other side streets are solid ice now. But it’s rare we get more than a couple inches this was a major event for us!

  9. In all snowstorms carry lifesaving food items such as apples, bananas, oranges, granola bars, sandwiches carried in a lunch box, drinking water, etc, laying in your back seat,   and small tools, a small shovel, cat litter, sand, or dissolving salt for ice in your car trunk during this kind of weather. Thanks Weather Channel for the information before hand.
    White Lily

  10. Friend, that was a great article! As a Hoosier living in the bayou, I can totally relate to it. I used to make fun of southerner’s “Shut-down-the-state-we-got-an-inch” outlook. Now I know better & dread those conditions (unless I WANT to miss work). I also keep spare clothing & shoes in my truck, old habit, glad I haven’t needed.. yet. Snow fort to snow cave, perfect snowball.. bring it on!

    1. Another observation from this weekend–southerners might make some odd choices at the grocery store as they prepare for snow. The store had plenty of milk, bread and eggs, but they were all out of zucchini, potatoes, bananas, strawberries and onions. I’ve learned to understand most things about snow down here, but that one doesn’t make too much sense to me ha.

      1. Milk, bread, eggs- MAIN stock-up supplies for me. But… stir-fry the zucchini, potatoes & onion, sliced strawberries & bananas for dessert.. Oh, now I’m hungry! 🙂

  11. Thank you for this. As a lifelong Southerner, I get fed up with Northerners who make fun of our reaction to snow. Fine you jerks, YOU pay for snow equipment that doesn’t get used every year!!!

  12. From one Northerner to another Northerner who just happens to live in the South: “What a Northerner Learned from a Southern Snowstorm” is hysterical and oh, so true!!!! Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

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