By the time you read this you will have likely heard all about Winter Storm Jonas and the possibility that the Baltimore region will soon become a veritable set piece for the fictional "White Walkers" from "Game of Thrones" — only without a giant wall to keep the frozen invaders out. The catch phrase "winter is coming" has suddenly taken on a new sense of urgency when there's a distinct possibility that an impending snowfall will be measured in feet, not inches.
Say what you will about the National Weather Service and the local meteorologists and their prognostications, but they've given everyone considerable advance warning for this likely blizzard — enough so that many of us have gone through at least five stages of coping. First, there was denial, then there was making fun of how the grocery stores are overrun by people stocking up on milk, bread and toilet paper — and then there was the rest of us running to those same stores buying the same stuff. That was followed by filling up the gas tank, and now it's mostly about quietly fretting about canceled classes and social events.
The bottom line is that Baltimore could experience heavy snows, high winds, power outages and impassable roads beginning Friday night and well into Sunday. That's a potentially dangerous mix, one that many of us may not have ever experienced, at least not at the forecast level. And all joking aside, it's wise to be prudent under these circumstances and follow the emergency procedures — stocking up on supplies, including medications and flashlight batteries; minimizing travel if at all possible and preparing for very cold weather.
Yet there's one important bit of advice offered by emergency service personnel (as well as the Bible) that deserves special attention: Love thy neighbor. With the distinct possibility that some residential areas will lose phone service and cable as well as electricity, keeping track of the welfare of those who live nearby, particularly the elderly, disabled or those with young children, could be a life-or-death choice. There could be a period of time — measured in long hours if not days — when local residents will be that isolated by the weather.
Checking up on the folks next door is probably a good idea in any event, but now it's essential. Yet studies show many Americans don't even know the names of those who live nearby. A Pew Research Center poll published in 2010 showed that the majority of adult Americans know few, if any, of their neighbors by name. Research conducted by an insurance company in the United Kingdom two years ago produced similar results with a finding that 70 percent of the British don't know their neighbors' full names and one-third wouldn't recognize them by sight.
In Baltimore, we like to think that we are a caring community, the "Smalltimore" of cities where within a mere matter of days after the riots last April, average people made a pilgrimage to West Baltimore to help clean up the streets of broken glass and the other refuse left behind. Yet we are also the city where snow storms often produce a fresh crop of folding chairs on the streets as people lay claim to the parking spaces they so carefully carved out of the snow.
From Westminster to Aberdeen, from Columbia to Annapolis, will this historic weather bring out the best in us or the worst? No doubt there will be many examples of people performing heroic actions — volunteers in four-wheel drive trucks shuttling doctors to hospitals, people sharing their supplies with strangers, sidewalks shoveled by helpful neighbors. As Minnesotan (and someone who saw a few snowfalls in his day) Hubert Humphrey once observed, the "impersonal hand of government can never replace the helping hand of a neighbor."
But it doesn't require heroism to simply knock on a door or even offer a friendly wave across a fence: "Are you OK? Anything you need?" From such simple actions, strong communities are built. Technically, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security doesn't include any "wave across the fence" advice in its lengthy list of recommended actions before and after a major snow storm (not even before the part about restocking emergency supplies when it's all over), but it would seem at least as important as taking care not to overdo the snow shoveling. Both are matters for the human heart.