All plowed out but still snowed in

Posted Feb. 18, 2010, at 6:52 p.m.

One week later, Baltimore is still recovering from the blizzards that made this winter the snowiest in the city’s recorded history, knocking previous winter records off the charts. For a city with an annual average snow accumulation of 18 inches, this year’s 80 inches — and counting — has come as a bit of a shock to many.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” one of my neighbors told me, staring in bewilderment at the snow that just won’t go away. “I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

As roads are slowly being cleared, academic calendars renegotiated and grocery stores finally getting restocked, many are taking a deep breath and sizing up the New Baltimore.

Giant piles of snow may no longer obstruct the roads — not the main ones, at least — but they certainly are not gone. The city simply isn’t set up for the kind of extensive plowing that needs to happen. Sidewalks are nonexistent, buried under drifts taller than I am. Pedestrians vie for space in the streets, picking their way through the slushy shoulders of the road and wading over the occasional bank. The few footpaths that have stayed shoveled are likely to end, midblock, leaving the walker to either backtrack or dive in. Black ice covers everything else. For those who aren’t hale, sturdy walkers, it’s a treacherous obstacle course.

I helped one old woman — only, I’m embarrassed to say, because she happened to fall exactly as I was passing her. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that she fell on me than it is to say that I helped her. While I hung onto her torso and she regained her balance, she looked at me with such gratitude that I immediately felt terrible for not having helped her on purpose. “Thank you, dear,” she said, as if I had jumped across the street to her rescue. “I’m just going right around the corner — almost there now.”

I steadied her awkwardly the last few yards to her door, and she wished me the most heartfelt “have a wonderful day” that I had ever heard. How far had she already labored through the snow, I wondered. For many, just getting around in their neighborhoods has become a serious challenge.

The snow is not going away tomorrow — that much is clear. After the second blizzard, Maryland’s governor, Martin O’Malley, made a stern public statement asking for the state’s patience and help. “Stop already with the ‘scrape my street down to the pavement.’ That cannot happen for the next 72 hours,” he said.

Even the post office, which was temporarily shut down by the blizzard, is asking for help. “Please help clear paths to your mailboxes,” the Postal Service said. “If your mailbox isn’t clear or safe to get to, mail carriers will not deliver to you.”

Slowly, the city is returning to normal operation. For many, this couldn’t come soon enough. “I’m going crazy with cabin fever,” one student said. “I couldn’t stay trapped in the house another day.

“All I have left to eat is a thing of mac ’n’ cheese. I’ve never been so excited to finally go back to class —and the grocery — in my life.”

For others, though — such as the hospital workers and other emergency services personnel — the beginnings of blizzard recovery marked the first rest they had had in days.

Stories have poured in of nurses, doctors and other medical staffers going above and beyond to keep hospitals running through the storm. The only two phone operators able to get to the medical center worked for three days straight, taking turns napping. Interns and residents walked four to five miles in the dark to cover for col-leagues’ early call hours. The crew keeping the heliport clear slept in four-hour shifts, with one preparing meals for the entire staff throughout the storm. A hundred staffers slept at the hospitals during the blizzards.

“It’s just part of the job,” said MaryBeth Locke, a nurse for 24 years. “When you sign on, you know that hospitals don’t shut down.”

Like so many crises, the blizzards that bowled over the mid-Atlantic brought out, at their height, the best in people — heroism, compassion, dedication.

Now, with the imminent danger past and the realization setting in of just how long this snow could linger, tempers are wearing thin.

“Watch where you’re throwing that snow!”

“Where do you want me to put it?”

“I don’t care where you put it, as long as it’s not anywhere near my car!”

In the first days after the blizzard, those who spent hours unburying their vehicles marked their newly cleared parking spots with kitchen chairs. Soon, an odd assortment of furniture could be seen claiming every cleared patch of snow. Initially, the new “chair system” of reserving hard-earned spots was respected, but as time has passed, it devolved into a free-for-all of angry windshield notes, dented chairs, even the reburying of interloping cars.

I had to laugh at that last reaction — but in the meantime, I’m taking the bus.

Will it ever melt? Yes — eventually. Until then, this city will just have to soldier on. We’ll get unburied in the end.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. E-mail her at meg@margaret-adams.com.

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