Two snow crises, three decades apart

Snow chaos hit China 30 years after the northern US suffered the effects of a great blizzard. Lei  Xiong looks for the lessons both can teach us about resilience and development.

It so happens that while China mobilised to fight the worst snow disaster in recent memory, many people in the United States were commemorating the 30th anniversary of another snow crisis.


Going down in history as the “Great Blizzard of 1978,” the “white hurricane” that swept the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes in late January and early February meant many residents were left with no power, heat or transportation for days or weeks on end. People were trapped in their houses, their offices or on roads. A state of emergency was announced in many states. The National Guard was called in to aid people stranded on highways.


Many Americans who lived through the blizzard have never forgotten it, just as their Chinese counterparts will not forget the latest snow disaster to their country.


Records show that the 1978 blizzard caused US$500 million in damages to Massachusetts alone. It is unclear how much the snow disaster will have cost China, but it is almost certain to have hit us harder, since we are at our annual peak of national mobility prior to the Lunar New Year, an important festival for family reunions.


It is pointless to compare the damage, however. What is noteworthy is the similar challenge that the two crises pose to us thirty years apart.


Many agree that the recent snowstorms highlight the vulnerability of China’s booming economy. It is obvious that the extreme weather caught the Chinese government and people unprepared, worsening power shortages, traffic congestion and inflation.


Similar scenarios were seen during the Great Blizzard of 1978. Some foods were rationed, and in disaster areas many were left without heat, water, food or electricity for over a week. Schools were closed for weeks.


Yet even 30 years back, the US, as a developed superpower, was far better off than China today. The northern US states hit by the blizzard were better equipped to handle ice and snow than the south China provinces hit by the recent snow chaos.


Nevertheless, as Thomas Schmidlin, a weather historian and professor of Geography at Kent State University, remarked 25 years after the 1978 blizzard: “With our comforts of cars, electricity, and heating, we may actually be more vulnerable to these blizzards than Ohioans of the nineteenth century, who were more independent and could tolerate disruptions of a few days.”


This is perhaps an inconvenient truth for both countries. Although we are at varying levels of development, we seem equally impotent when faced with natural disasters. Our modern infrastructures seem to be paralysed by extreme weather.


People in South China are fighting the snow disaster heroically. They were only able to minimise the damage, however, rather than protect themselves in the first place. Even if infrastructure is improved after the snow crisis, we cannot guarantee that our highways are not shut down, flights are not cancelled and railways unaffected when we next have bad weather.


When the modernity we rely on so heavily is this vulnerable to the elements, do we not have to consider the extent of our reliance? When all your heating is electric, what do you do when the coal power stations shut down?


Of course, we cannot and should not return to the Stone Age, just to avoid the effects of extreme weather. But it is disastrous if we have no alternatives to the transport links and communication lines that have proved so vulnerable.


Perhaps we could get some inspiration from the role played by internal combustion locomotives during the current snow disaster. When the power failure paralyzed electric locomotives, internal combustion locomotives served as “ferry engines” to rescue other trains.


The electric locomotive would normally seem “more advanced” than its internal combustion counterpart, but not during this crisis.


Both snow crises send us a similar warning: the modernisation we are so proud of may not be as powerful as it looks. We have to find a way to develop that can sustain us in all weathers. The modernisation we seek should improve our capacity to cope with disasters like the one we recently faced, rather than increase our vulnerability to it.

Xiong Lei is a council member of China Society for Human Rights Studies.

Homepage photo by Jin Aili