Reflections on the ‘polar vortex’ | Inquirer Opinion
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Reflections on the ‘polar vortex’

I remember visiting the United States during winter some years back and driving into the subdivision where my sister and her family lived in Virginia. It was early evening, and the scene was straight out of a Currier and Ives print. Roofs were blanketed in snow, the spindly branches of trees sported twinkling necklaces of ice and frost. “Ang ganda (How beautiful)!” I exclaimed, as the car crunched its way through the snow-covered streets. My brother-in-law, who was driving, snorted: “Not if you have to shovel through the snow.”

Truly, it all depends on one’s point of view. I, who lived in a tropical country, was enchanted by the sight of a world blanketed in white, by the silence and the cold. My brother-in-law, who had to get up early each morning to clear the driveway, remembered only the back-breaking effort of shoveling, knowing that he would have to do it all over again the next morning.

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It was, it turned out, a truly unexpected sight in Virginia, where snow falls only rarely and winters are deemed “mild” on most years. But an unexpected snowstorm had hit the region. In fact, a few hours after I had boarded my plane in Manila, the organizer of the meeting I was to attend called to say the meeting was being postponed because the employees of the hotel we were to stay in could not make their commutes.

A word about “snowstorms.” When my sister told me suburban Virginia was going under siege because of a storm, I steeled myself for driving rain and floodwaters. But a snowstorm seems a more benign event. I went to sleep that night relishing the quiet snowfall, flakes falling in silence as trees softly groaned with the added weight. “Here’s the snowstorm!” my sister exclaimed as I made my way to the breakfast table, mystified at  how such quiet could be construed as a “storm.”

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At the time, my niece was studying in Montreal, and she was amused no end at how her parents and our other relatives were panicking at the volume of falling snow.

In Montreal, she said, the city simply fields its snow plows and dumps the snow and ice in an empty park, which quickly transforms into a “hill” where residents ski and sled and generally enjoy themselves. At the time, Washington, DC, and the suburban governments could barely scratch up one or two snow plows.

Now I wonder how they’re coping with the polar vortex, an ominous-sounding weather phenomenon described in news reports as “a whirlpool of frigid, dense air” that has swirled down from the North Pole and driven down temperatures in much of Europe and North America.

My sister and her family, including the daughter inured to winter in Montreal, have since fled the mild winters of Virginia for the more-or-less balmy climes of San Diego in California. My daughter, studying in New York, flew there for her Christmas break and, the last time we Skyped, said she was dreading her return to the icy streets of Manhattan. “I might take a cab from the airport,” she announced, which, given her tight budget, is a splurge, indeed, but a precaution we endorsed.

Still, reading the reports about temperatures dropping to an unbelievable -50 degrees, and photos of commuters making their way through the streets with the help of ski poles, and of an elderly woman slipping on the ice-covered sidewalk, I can’t help but worry. Winter is not a natural environment for someone who grew up in the tropics.

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Someone once wrote that “it’s better to be homeless in a tropical country.” In a country like the Philippines, after all, all you have to contend with are mulcting police and security guards (if they notice you at all), rats, cockroaches, and occasional rain (and flood).

But during winter, sleeping out on the street can kill you. Even during milder seasons, homeless advocates say, the number of available shelters is still hopelessly inadequate for the growing population of homeless, including entire families who sleep in their cars.

One family in the Midwest, I remember reading some time back, decided they needed to help the homeless in a meaningful way, and so they drove around the city, distributing blankets to the street people who were about to “bed down” on cardboard boxes with newspapers as their blankets.

Sometimes, I think, a few dollars on a blanket goes much, much farther than millions spent on a political campaign or a high-profile advocacy effort on the “rights” of the homeless. Some city officials in the United States, I am told, have begun programs to get homeless families off the streets during the worst of winter and put them up in hostels. Oftentimes, homelessness is just a temporary state for many, and once they can stop worrying about safety and survival, adults eventually find jobs and children can go back to school.

Winter may be “beautiful” if you’re a visitor, but it can be cruel and dangerous if you have to live with it.

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May I nominate for “Photo of the Year” the banner portrait in yesterday’s (Monday) Inquirer of five-year-old Rex Tismo of Manlurip Elementary School in Tacloban. Truly, his smile, his joy shining through his eyes, made my day. Smiles are a rarity in Tacloban these days, and the boy’s evident good spirits made my heart sing.

Perhaps the fact that he was back in school, in the familiar and comforting company of his friends and classmates, accounts for much of Rex’s high. Or maybe taking delight from life, even if it’s just the attention of a photographer, is a natural state for the boy. Whatever, thank you, Rex, for being the face of happiness amid so much hardship. Long may you thrive.

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TAGS: Climate, column, polar vortex, Rina Jimenez-David, US, winter
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