Threading the eye of a storm needle

Published on: January 27, 2016


By late Saturday afternoon, shoveling had lost, the blizzard had won. At least temporarily.

By late Saturday afternoon, shoveling had lost, the blizzard had won. At least temporarily. Mitch Traphagen photos.

While I slept fitfully, yet warm and comfortable, through North Carolina, five people lost their lives on that state’s highways. It was the beginning of an epic and historic snowstorm. Those lives were among the first of 31 that would eventually be claimed, most through accidents on the roads, some through asphyxiation and carbon monoxide poisoning in snow-buried cars, others from heart attacks while attempting to clear the historic levels of snow left behind by the storm.

I woke up on Thursday morning in sunny Florida. By the next morning, I was in Washington, D.C., on a race against the clock to beat the storm that, according to weather radar on my iPhone, was rapidly bearing down on the city and on my destination, the New York City area. The warnings were omnipresent; on the news and on electronic overhead freeway signs. A blizzard was coming. Make plans. Be prepared.

Living and working in two cities is often a blessing — you get to enjoy the best of two worlds. But that changes when a storm threatens one, along with my spouse, while I was in the other.

The storm was forecast to hit the Capitol on Friday afternoon and then move up the coast. On Thursday morning, I knew I could make the drive in time but there was one problem: I would have to drive through the storm in the Carolinas and Virginia to get ahead of the blizzard.

A pre-storm sunrise somewhere in Virginia taken from the northbound Auto Train. Today this vista would be covered in snow.

A pre-storm sunrise somewhere in Virginia taken from the northbound Auto Train. Today this vista would be covered in snow.

Nothing goes through a blizzard like a train. Amtrak’s Auto Train offers nonstop service for passengers and their cars from Sanford, near Orlando, to Lorton, Va., near D.C. While much of the world has expanded rail service as a mass transit solution, the U.S., in most parts of the country, has let rail languish or relegated it to freight service. But even with that, the Auto Train is unique. Fully loaded, it is the longest passenger train in the world. Each year it carries more than a quarter of a million people, many of them snowbirds seeking the sun in the winter and their homes up north in the summer without battling the traffic on the nation’s most heavily traveled freeway. The Amtrak reservation number for the Auto Train advertises its main appeal: 877-SKIP-I95.

On Thursday, the train was carrying refugees, people running toward the storm, yet hoping to avoid driving in it.

As the train rolled through Jacksonville, dinner of braised beef short rib and sea bass was served. The four of us at the table, all strangers, were each traveling alone in sleeper car compartments known as “roomettes.” That in itself was unusual — most people in the sleeper cars travel as couples or families.

NIC_1294-blizzardfeatureCoach service is quite comfortable, with reclining seats much larger than first-class service on airliners, each with an electrical receptacle to charge electronics. But coach is no way for a middle-aged person to travel alone. To wander anywhere on the train means taking the belongings you’ve packed for the overnight trip. On a full train, it could also mean being trapped into a large, comfortable coach seat by a stranger sleeping in an aisle seat. Despite that the train can travel in excess of 70 miles per hour, that is no way to spend an 855-mile journey.

Unlike previous trips I’ve taken on this train, the dinner conversation was somewhat clipped, laughter and jokes were few. As we traveled north, there was a growing sense of impending doom, as though a living entity was waiting to engulf all of us. One woman was traveling to her farm in Maryland to tend to her horses. Her husband chose to remain in Florida. Another woman, somewhat elderly, decided to leave Florida for her beloved Virginia. The other man at the table said very little, except that he needed to get to Maryland.

Particularly in the South, where population density is lower and trains are fewer, both sides of the tracks are the wrong side. There are too many abandoned and rotting buildings to count. Once, long ago, someone pounded in the last nail or applied the last brush stroke of paint, stepped back and admired their work. Today, nature is rapidly reclaiming possession of it all. Along the Auto Train’s route is incredible beauty and Americana. But there are also abandoned homes, barns and factories.

We arrived near Washington, D.C., on time. Ours would be the last train for the next few days. Service was cancelled. There is one run in each direction each day. Somewhere in the night the two Auto Trains pass. But not that night, nor the next.

No snow had yet fallen by the time my car was offloaded from the train. Through D.C., Baltimore and to the northeastern edge of Maryland, overhead signs trumpeted the warnings. Doom, death and destruction was on its way.

I made my way through the tangled freeways and traffic of the two cities just two hours before the storm began. Soon, the Empire State Building and World Trade Center were visible through my windshield without so much as a flake of snow or drop of rain impeding the view. The needle had been threaded.

By nightfall, the scene appeared near-apocalyptic.

By nightfall, the scene appeared near-apocalyptic.

The night of my arrival, we watched the news of the snow falling in Washington and Baltimore. When we went to sleep, not a single flake had fallen in the New York City area. But in the morning, we woke to an entirely different world.

Particularly in a densely populated urban area, snow can conceal a variety of mankind’s sins. It was beautiful. I dutifully shoveled the sidewalk. And then shoveled again; five times in total and the snow kept falling. I’d given up by sunset.

And then we again awoke to a different world. The sun was shining, the light so intensely bright with nearly three feet of pure white snow. It was still, quiet and nothing was moving in the city. It was staggering yet wonderful.

The shoveling began again, aided by the rising temperature and the bright sunshine. In the city, there is no place to put that much snow so we filled our small front yard and further buried our car on the sidewalk side. Then we dug paths for the dogs in the backyard.

Once completed, we made a mile-long walk of our neighborhood. Everywhere we went, kids were playing in the snow while parents were digging out. People were helping others. In the warm sunshine, it was a surprisingly joyous scene, like a block party on every single block. By evening, some parents were joining their children, with one man nearby taking his child on a sled down a snow mountain he himself had created. When they’d launch, the child would scream, the dad would yell and they’d slide down and into the quiet street while mom recorded it all on an iPad.

My car remained buried under a mountain of snow. But I wasn’t alone: this is a city police car.

My car remained buried under a mountain of snow. But I wasn’t alone: this is a city police car.

My car was still buried under a huge mountain of snow. But that could wait until the next day because it was by no means alone. On our walk we saw a mound of snow with just lights on the roof and a fortified bumper sticking out. It was a city police car.

Thirty-one people died in the storm. Many suffered from flooding, having lost power or being lost in homelessness (despite efforts to bring people inside).

But the city changed and is now wearing an entirely new look. Perhaps people changed, too. Perhaps they found something, like the simple joy of sliding down a hill. Or seeing the snow and remembering childhood. The storm was historic but the city survived just fine.

The next day, I booked a flight back to Florida. Nothing beats a blizzard like some palm trees and warm sunshine.