Don’t Be “That” Minnesotan

Minnesotans are proud of our ability to withstand snow, ice, and extremely cold temperatures. I’m not immune – I would have been disappointed if we made it an entire winter without below zero temps.

But, what I wish we WOULDN’T do is express that pride by making fun of the winter weather in other parts of the country. Especially now that climate change is showing us what it can do. All bets are off, folks.

In particular, Texas is on my mind this week. The Dallas-Fort Worth area, oddly enough, has a 35E and 35W just like we do here in the Twin Cities. Of course, those two cities are 30 miles apart instead of only 10, but it’s a fun thing to have in common.

Just last week, 1/2 mile of their 35W was iced over. Right before the morning commute. I can pontificate until the long horn cattle come home about the land use decisions that got us to a freeway-based commute in the DFW area. But, in this moment, there were people in 133 vehicles that ended up in a massive crash. A friend from Texas sent me a “crazy” video, but after watching one jack-knifed semi run into cars that were already half the size they used to be, I knew I was watching people die. I couldn’t finish watching.

In the end, six people died. It took several days to identify them all. Dozens were injured. Lives were permanently changed.

Here in Minnesota, we get some ice, but mostly we get snow and slush and “wintry mix.” We have snow plows and salt trucks. Southern states get ice. There’s not enough salt in the world to melt miles and miles of ice that can be up to 1/2 inch thick. The ONLY thing to do is just stay put until it melts.

As a Minnesotan, I know how to drive in snow and I know how to push a car out of a snowbank. But I absolutely would not be able to drive on a sheet of ice like that. There’s nothing about being from/living at this latitude that endows me with such skills.

Snowy wind-swept field in northern MN as seen from the passenger seat of a car.
View of snow from car window

This week, something kind of terrifying is happening in the south. On Monday it was in the single digits in Texas, and in the 20s in Louisiana. It’s tempting to be a smug Minnesotan and say, “What? Only 5 F? it’s -15 F here!” “What a bunch of wimps!” “Ha ha! I wish it was that warm here – wanna trade?”

National temperature map showing a cold front extending from MN all the way south to Texas. Temps in Texas range from 0 to 20 degrees.
Map of Monday’s temperatures in the US

Last February, our furnace went out – I think it was in the teens outside. We got an emergency service call at 8pm on a Saturday night. They lent us some electric space heaters that we strategically placed in the kitchen to keep the pipes from freezing and in the bedrooms so we could sleep. Temps in our house hovered in the upper 50s, but nothing froze. I wore a hat to bed, but I was fine. It was still a nerve-wracking 24 hours before the new furnace was installed the next day. Friends and family expressed concern, they didn’t poke fun.

Last week, a transformer in our neighborhood blew. We were without power for a few hours, and internal temps started to drop after only a couple of minutes. Power came back on a few hours later, but if it hadn’t the roads were clear and we could probably pack up the cats and stay in a hotel over night.

Here’s what a friend in Austin told us Monday morning – the energy demands to heat all the homes in the affected area are JUST too high. They are out of options. They’ve gone from buying energy from nearby grids (stage 1) to shutting down industrial uses to conserve power (stage 2) to rolling blackouts in residential areas (stage 3). The wind turbines they use down there aren’t designed for temps this cold and they’re frozen. People are running out of propane for backup heaters. There. Is. No. Heat. And the roads are still a sheet of ice, so leaving isn’t an option.

Monday’s overnight low in Austin is 9. It’s been 9 degrees here. I’ve even bundled up in cold weather gear, gone outside and enjoyed myself in 9 degree weather. But then, when I was done, I went back inside a heated building.

I watched the NYT documentary about Britney Spears recently. In the late 90s, I despised pop music – I was into the much better (?) genres of grunge and alternative rock. I thought Britney Spears was a dumb party girl not worth my time. Twenty-five years later having listened to the Seeing White podcast (Ep 6 in particular), and watching the documentary, I’ve come to realize that a big part of my judgement of her in particular was because of her Louisiana accent.

Growing up in the North, I’d learned to dismiss the South as all kinds of things – racist, poor, uneducated, totally incapable of dealing with “normal” weather. I can’t help but think that some of this judgment that we smugly pass from inside our heated, well insulated homes is wrapped up in that.

This isn’t normal. Don’t be THAT Minnesotan. Seeing these stories shouldn’t elicit a “Ha ha, bunch of wimps!” response. There are plenty of things to joke about in this world. For example, did you know that giraffes can swim? We need to take climate change seriously and we need to take the impacts on humans seriously, regardless of where they live or how they talk.

Hannah Pritchard

About Hannah Pritchard

Hannah Pritchard is a pedestrian and bicycle engineer at MnDOT. Bicycle commuter, bassoonist, and cat enthusiast, Hannah has been part of the board since 2016.

15 thoughts on “Don’t Be “That” Minnesotan

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Thanks for posting. Many houses in the south don’t have any insulation. Most folks don’t have lots of winter clothes. I can’t imagine how they’re dealing with a cold snap without power…

  2. Melissa Wenzel

    When I started to hear about the lack of heat and electricity, any smugness I had was replaced with compassion and heartbreak. I don’t want to be a Minnesotan who thinks smug thoughts of a different group of people based on geographic location. That’s no better than based on skin color. And we have seen so CLEARLY what happens with a smug mindset. I’m not talking Jan 6, Michigan’s governor or the last 4 years. I’m talking about how “NOTHING” comes about with a smug attitude. It literally does no good.

    Thank you for this eloquent reminder for me and others.

  3. Anu WilleEmilie Wille

    Thank you Hannah! As a born-and-raised Texan now in Minnesota I’m sitting in my apartment warm with heat and electricity while awaiting updates from my family in Dallas, who are experiencing blackouts and low gas. My dad’s an avid outdoorsman from Wisconsin so he’ll know what to do, but many do not. Minnesota is so much better equipped and comfortable even in the current extreme cold. Hopefully folks remember to not be smug next time there’s a hurricane, too

  4. Sheldon Gitis

    The Interstate Highway mess in DWT isn’t all that different from the MSP mess. On a Sunday afternoon, when daytime traffic is about as moderate as it gets, basically the same thing happened on I694 in Shoreview, when a jack-knifed semi caused dozens of high-speed, reckless drivers and their vehicles to crash, and caused miles of traffic backup. DWT may be MSP on steroids, but MSP is pumping up to catch up.

    The Brittney Spears doc sounds interesting. On the Media did a piece about it last week. I’d post the link but there appears to be something screwy going on with the “update” rejecting comments with links.

    1. Hannah PritchardHannah Pritchard Post author
      1. Totally. Seems like we’ve had a couple of rough mornings lately. Deep freeze makes pretreatment useless, and a tiny amount of snow doesn’t melt and gets slippery. MN is at 31 fatalities for 2021. I’d love to see more weather-based advisory speed limits on freeways (assuming, of course, they were followed). Crash severity for vehicle occupants goes way up around 60 or 70 mph.

      2. It was pretty interesting! Some of the interview questions she got in the late 90s were really disgusting. In what world is “are you a virgin?” an acceptable line of questioning?

  5. Christa MChrista Moseng

    Thanks for this post! It’s one thing to have a friendly rivalry about the hardships of living where we live—but we have developed a lot of systems and infrastructure that allow us to withstand them, because they’re expected. It’s good to remind ourselves that being a victim of a natural disaster isn’t a moral failing. (Though I hope Texas is reconsidering the value of being better connected to the national grid…)

    1. Hannah PritchardHannah Pritchard Post author

      Yes. Our historic disinvestment in ALL types of infrastructure is going to be a huge weakness as weather patterns get more erratic. We usually lament the disinvestment in sidewalks, roads, and bridges. But there are so many other areas where we’ll need to become more resilient. Texas needs to get better connected to the national grid, but that grid also needs major updates. Water & waste water systems, power systems, rural broadband access, food supply systems, etc etc. It’s kind of embarrassing how ill-prepared we are as a country to deal with this kind of thing.

  6. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    A friend of mine in Austin said they scrounged downed branches to burn in their fireplace for heat last night. By this morning their thermostat was down to 50°, still no power, and a second storm coming.

    I’ve been without heat in the winter when the furnace stops. It can be bad, it’s no joke.

    But I’ll be sniping at their state government and ERCOT about their preparedness.

  7. Mark

    Just to be clear, despite the narrative being pushed by groups that favor big oil, the wind turbines freezing up isn’t the big reason for their power issues. The issue is equipment failures at plants due to the cold temps, natural gas supply issues, and Texas and ERCOT’s refusal to engage in interstate commerce. Energy use is typically low this time of year in Texas so many plants were taken offline for scheduled maintenance/upgrades, if Texas hadn’t restricted themselves they could have increased power supply to meet the increased demand. The events are unfortunate and I feel bad for all citizens impacted, but as others have said key agencies and state officials deserve any negative attention coming their way.

    1. Hannah PritchardHannah Pritchard Post author

      Yeah, “renewables are bad” is definitely a dumb takeaway from this, thanks for chiming in on that. I’ve actually learned a lot more about Texas’s energy system than I ever wanted to know since I wrote this yesterday. The wind turbines are probably most notable to some people b/c they’re a lot more visible than the coal plant.

      I’m interested to see if ERCOT (an organization I did not know about until yesterday) decides to join the larger system after this. Or, if they try to retrofit some of their plants to work in colder weather. Or, if they do nothing and assume this was a “once in a lifetime” kind of thing.

      1. Melissa Wenzel

        On a related/unrelated topic, Minnesota created a statewide Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN) for water/wastewater declarations of emergencies. The website touts it as a “utilities helping utilities” resource. I learned about this ~10 years ago. To this day, I wonder how much suffering we could reduce/minimize, impacts to the community etc if we worked together instead of working against one another.

  8. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    I’m reminded of when I was stationed in Meridian, MS. During the time I lived off-base, whenever the temp got below freezing (which happened occasionally but usually not for long), I had to turn a water faucet on to at least a drip or the water pipes would freeze and burst. Which happened to me once….I would up splitting the $1300 water bill that month with the water company. I never forgot to turn the sink on in cold weather after that.

  9. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    The funny thing about this is that the rest of the winter world views Minnesotans as total wimps. And rightly so?

    Minnesotans can’t ride bicycles because it’s too cold or too snowy – complaints seen here and Strongtowns and Streetsblog on a regular basis. Minnesotans won’t eat outside unless temps are between 72° and 76°f w/ a breeze of 2-4mph and sunny.

    Others, particularly across Scandinavia, will rarely let cold or snow deter them from walking or bicycling. They’ll enjoy meals outside when it’s 50°f and even well below that the tables in front of cafés will be full of people drinking coffee and chatting. Our restaurants put outside tables and chairs away in October not to be seen again until April while in Helsinki, Oulu, Stockholm, Oslo and other cities they are out all year because people use them all year. St Andrews and Edinburgh are far from a winter cities with people acclimated to it yet people even there routinely eat outside in 50°f (and very damp) temps.

    There are exceptions (I remember Janne & Bill both riding bicycles to a meeting during the winter when I’d chosen to drive) but overall I’m not sure we Minnesotans are in a position to be proud of anything.

    Great article though and we do indeed need to keep Texas in our thoughts and prayers.

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