News / USA

    Reporter's Notebook: Enduring the Midwest's 'Polar Vortex'

    The snow covers the ground outside the Farabaugh home near Chicago, Illinois, Jan. 6, 2014. (VOA/Kane Farabaugh)
    The snow covers the ground outside the Farabaugh home near Chicago, Illinois, Jan. 6, 2014. (VOA/Kane Farabaugh)
    It’s garbage day today.  Time to put out the trash for collection.  

    It’s a Monday ritual in the Farabaugh home, getting up a little earlier in the morning to make sure all the bins are emptied and the recycling is gathered, so all of it can sit neatly at the end of our driveway waiting for our trash collector, who usually arrives early in the morning.

    But today the ritual is a little different, because before I can accomplish any of that, I need to put on extra thick layers of clothing and snow gear to protect myself from the “polar vortex” that I’ve heard so much about on the radio and television over the last several days.

    When I ventured outside only the day before to shovel and blow about 12 inches (30 centimeters) of snow off my driveway (not once but twice) there was no bitter cold to mention, no “polar vortex” threatening an otherwise enjoyable, mildly cold snowfall.  My sons and I made the most out of it by attempting to build a snowman, which ultimately turned into a snow fort.

    So as I prepared to boldly go outside once again some 12 hours later, I was physically preparing for the worst, as it has been described by weather reports, which have forecast today’s temperatures as record lows.

    After piling layer upon layer of clothing (five in all) and slipping into my puffy snowsuit, I put on a knit cap and facemask, tightened my waterproof gloves, and proceeded to take "one small step for man" outside the warmth of my cozy home, realizing it might be a leap of faith that I would remain warm enough inside all of this gear to be effective at completing the task at hand… putting out the garbage in an environment that I’ve been told today could feel like I was walking on the moon.

    The first part of my moonwalk begins inside the garage, organizing garbage and recycling bins before placing them at the end of the driveway.  This task was completed with little difficulty, and a quick check of the temperature inside my garage, with the door down, was a balmy 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius).  No wind chill.  

    First part of the task completed, I pressed the button signaling the garage door to open.  As the door slowly lifted, the howling wind and loose snow whips around me, lifting up and blowing around the empty plastic containers I had neatly sorted for recycling.  So much for preparing.

    Fully engaged with no turning back now, I plunge headlong into the howling icy winds with a full and heavy garbage can on wheels dragged behind me.  We both make it intact to the end of the driveway, but on my way down, I realize that all the work clearing the driveway yesterday has been thwarted by the overnight winds that have brought the snow back onto the neat path I had created.

    Before any more of the trash and recycling can be placed outside, I have to shovel off the driveway one more time.

    I race back up the driveway for a snow shovel, and as I put my back into not just pushing the snow but also fighting the wind, 10 minutes into this effort I’m starting to lose sensation in my eyes, and I’m having difficulty moving my eyelids.

    This prompts me to seek refuge back inside to thaw out my eyeballs.

    As I take a quick break with all these layers still on, I ask my wife to fill up two large cups of water for me for a little science experiment I’d like to conduct.  

    Five minutes later, I am back outside, this time armed with a large cup of water, which I proceed to throw in the air, assuming it will turn to ice.  

    I should have watched YouTube or Facebook or at least talked to someone before doing this, because everyone knows for this little gag to work the water needs to be boiling hot.  Then, when you get outside in temperatures as low as they are today, and throw it in the air, the water turns almost instantly to ice before it hits the ground.

    I was clearly not tuned in to the most important part of this equation, and my efforts to watch water turn to ice when thrown from my cup turns into an epic science experiment failure.  It simply lands on the ground as water.

    So I place the second cup of water on the porch, where it will stay until I’m done with my chores.

    Back at it again, I’m almost done clearing the driveway when I’m greeted by a city snowplow, happily clearing the snow from the street in front of my house, only to have the plow dandily place a chunk of it back on the end of my driveway.  That means that no sooner did I think I was finished dealing with all of this, I have to take another few passes with the snow shovel.  My fourth time in two days.

    By now, I’ve spent about 25 minutes total in this bitter cold moonscape (all before the sun has risen), and before I can finish the task at hand, my eyeballs are freezing again.  I think my breath is somehow reaching up into my face and freezing.  I didn’t even know that was possible.  My breath is freezing my face off.

    So it’s back inside to thaw out the eyeballs once more, and on the way as I pass the porch, I glance down into the cup of water I had set aside.  Sure enough, it’s frozen, almost solid.  After just over 10 minutes of being outside.

    So the cup comes inside to thaw out along with my eyeballs.

    I am more determined now than ever to get the rest of the trash out and be done with this madness.  A quick check of the temperature outside says it’s minus 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-26 degrees Celsius).

    Eyeballs now thawed, cold weather gear once again fixed, and with the end firmly in sight, I collect as much of the recycling and garbage as I can and head back down the driveway.  The wind makes this not unlike an obstacle course. I try to keep the contents of the bins from blowing away while trying to prevent myself from slipping on the small pockets of ice that dot my driveway.

    After a few heats of this race back and forth to the garage, I manage to get enough of the trash to the bottom of the driveway, and create a snow wall around it to prevent much of it from blowing over, or blowing away.

    It’s been not quite 30 minutes from the time I first ventured out to do this, and despite the layers, I can really feel the cold.  Not so much on the body, just on the face.  My cheeks are red, and once again, my eyeballs are freezing and I can’t open my eyelids.  It’s a weird sensation.

    But now that the task is over, I head back inside where I proceed to once again thaw my eyeballs, but now I shed my layers.

    It’s been the most arduous and ridiculously long effort to get the trash out this morning, but thankfully it’s over.

    I’m ready for some hot coffee to warm me back up again and set me on my path for the day, which includes coverage for Voice of America on… what else… the “polar vortex.”

    As I wait for the coffee pot to brew, I turn on the radio and tune it to one of the local radio stations, which is on “polar vortex” patrol.

    The broadcast confirms what my eyeballs have been telling me for the last hour.

    Yep, the “polar vortex” is here.

    Yep, the wind chill makes it feel like minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit (-46 degrees Celsius).

    Please, if you can, remain indoors.

    Many area businesses are closed, and there is no trash collection.

    Really?  Did I hear that just right?  There’s no trash collection today?

    Indeed.

    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.

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