• Chill factor
    March 06,2014

    Standing around at town meeting this week, every conversation inevitably turned to the weather. With the time change just days away, even the most die-hard Vermonters are used to it being a little warmer (and therefore muddier) around the first Tuesday in March.

    But the temperatures are keeping the mercury well below seasonal norms. And even if that were not entirely accurate, it is undeniably cold outside. The polar vortex has taken its toll. Even The New York Times earlier this week published an article about how 2013-14 has earned the moniker of “the winter to remember.”

    Anecdotal evidence aside, certain facts strike at the heart of the long, cold winter with stark clarity. The colder weather across much of the nation has placed significant demands on fuel — oil, propane and natural gas, even dry wood. That has led to strains on personal budgets and additional issues for social service organizations that distribute money for emergency fuel. With that demand still on for staying warm, the burden is shifting, in some cases away from food shelves and other calls for need, and more organizations are having to shift money away from those causes.

    The cycle is continuously strained with every day these frigid temperatures hold on.

    At the same time, as Vermont and the rest of the Northeast have been pounded with repeated (seemingly relentless) storms, some communities are reporting shortages of sand and salt. With warmer-than-normal winters in recent years, road crews and town managers planned based on that empirical data. But this year, by early February, with the onslaught of snow and ice storms, those stockpiles were depleted. Some towns have even gone so far as to put down only sand in most cases in lieu of wasting salt when temperatures refuse to creep above freezing.

    Across Vermont, too, homeless shelters and hotels are reporting that demand is filling them to capacity. Community action councils are reporting even more demand for their services as well. And, notably, mental health organizations are seeing a sharp increase in calls to hotlines and people needing additional support.

    Nature is putting our little state and our resources to the test this year. Meteorologists say this winter is not that much different from other “cold” years, and it still does not break the records from the winter of 2003-04. Yet the starkness (and the cold) are being felt in different ways.

    Perhaps part of the strain is because of the barrage of news stories outlining the instability in Ukraine and other corners of the world; or the continued partisan gridlock that seems to mire our government; or what appears to be a rash of crimes statewide that mark an uptick in theft and fraud.

    Without a doubt, our conversations at town meetings, at watercoolers, in church foyers, at homeless shelters and elsewhere speak to both resilience and a bit of fatigue.

    With one in five Vermonters living under the threat of hunger, and double-digit increases in the percentage of people losing homes or filing for bankruptcies, these monochrome days of an extended winter remind us that we need each other. We need to be good neighbors, looking out for dwindling wood piles, and snow piles still too high. It is about making donations if and when we can, and standing tall as members of a community that takes pride in watching out for one another.

    Because the winter will ease soon, and warmer, brighter days will take the edge off the fear and anxiety we feel. And we can look forward to the spring thaw, and even mud season.

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