Weathering Winters in Nashville

To state it plainly, Nashvillians freak out over winter weather. Here’s why–and how it will affect you.

The Bowl of Middle Tennesssee

To understand why winters are weird in Nashville, consult a topographical map. You’ll learn that middle Tennessee is basically a crater with higher elevations around us. That makes for pollen-filled summers and a winter where ice is more likely than snow. Or at least the ice arrives first, an almost-invisible danger whether you’re walking or driving. The TV meteorologists refer to it as a “wintry mix.”

Winter driving

Perhaps you’ve noticed that we have lots of hills–great for sledding but not for vehicles. When ice coats the ground first, cars turn into roller coast rides where unpredictability rules the day. Snow provides a degree of traction; ice does not. No traction, no control. As the temp drops, our bridges, overpasses and ramps freeze first. The three interstate highways that pass through Nashville incorporate a treacherous mix of elevation changes and banked curves. All it takes is one car in trouble and soon you have a real mess.

Because we average only 7″ of snowfall a year (spread across 10 measurable snowfalls/year), we don’t gear up with the kind of equipment you’d find in Buffalo or Pittsburgh. Our road crews work hard salting and plowing but their resources are limited.

Because we don’t get a lot of experience with winter driving, we’re frankly not very good at it. People drive too fast, brake too late and too hard. They make hard turns resulting in some dazzling fish-tailing. And once they get stuck, most aren’t adept at escaping. Your best strategy is defensive driving, assuming the cars around you are piloted by Idiocy Incarnate. Bless their hearts.

When things get messy, MTA buses shift to snow routes. (Note: MTA is in the process of changing its name to WeGo.)

Empty bread racks at Kroger
Photo: Melony Pugh Weber

The run on groceries

A few years ago, someone coined the phrase “Snowmaggedon” and it’s unfortunately accurate. Hysteria breaks out. Masses of people descend on grocery stores as though this is their last chance ever to buy food. We’re just shy of having a black market for milk, eggs and bread.

School closings

With not much more than a hint of snow, school systems and even private schools shut down. Why? Although you may live on a clear, dry street in the city, there are a ton of people who live on narrow county roads with steep inclines and tricky turns. Maybe your Range Rover can handle such conditions; try those same roads driving a school bus. Superintendents and principals err on the side of caution.

Work closings

The first to go dark seem to be government offices. Next come the businesses in funky locations or those where workers face extraordinary risk in bad weather. From there, everything depends on your employer. During our worst storms, it seems like most of the city shuts down or operates with a skeleton crew. Some large businesses call their closings into local TV stations and they’re added along with school closings as lower-thirds (TV talk) across the bottom of the screen.

Power and cable outages

The Ice Storm of 1994 lives on infamy as one of our worst winter episodes. Reports of 1/2-3/4″ of accumulated ice were common, resulting broken tree branches and fallen power lines throughout the midstate. Even though I live in an urban area, my electricity was off for 10 days. Since then, electric companies (particularly Nashville Electric Service) have aggressively cut any tree branches that could land on a power line.

They’ve created two information avenues: you can report an outage here or see a map of areas are currently reporting outages. Having issues with Comcast service? Report an issue with Spectrum here or check on areas with reported issues.

Flight cancellations

Just as the road crews have minimal equipment, the Nashville airport doesn’t have the oomph of runway-clearing power of the Northeast. Translation: sometimes flights get cancelled. It’s wise to confirm your flight before heading to the airport if the weather is causing problems. Ice and rapidly-landing planes don’t mix.

Beware the Spring Fake-Out

Sometime in late January or February, we’ll hit upon some nice sunny days with highs in the 70s. You’ll be tempted to put away your winter clothes and start planting flowers. Don’t. Soon thereafter we will experience at least two or three periods that will drop to the 20s or low 30s.

Best precautions

  • Stay off the roads when they’re icy, if possible.
  • If you can’t be among the first to head home, consider waiting out the worst traffic before you begin driving. Fewer cars in motion mean fewer people you have to watch out for. If snow falls after ice, your tires will have something to grip.
  • Keep a couple of old rugs, large towels, kitty litter, ice-melting pellets, rock salt or sand in your vehicle in the event you need emergency traction.
  • Stock your pantry two days before a storm is predicted to avoid the freaked-out crowds.
  • Icy sidewalks send a slew of people to ERs and chiropractors. Walk on the grass if the sidewalk is slick or clear it off.
  • Park safely. If you live on a hill, consider parking: 1) where no one is likely to slide into your car, 2) where you can drive away with minimal trouble.
  • Keep gloves, coat, hat and a blanket in your car–just in case you get stuck or boxed in.

Speaking of traffic-related stuff, have you visited Navigate Nashville Streets, Part I?




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