Shiver or swelter? The great debate between derecho hell and snowmageddon

Shiver or swelter?

It is a question that hardly anyone who has endured both Snowmageddon and Derecho Damnation wants to confront, if only because the question itself triggers its own torment.

In these end times, when the power goes out for what feels like forever, which form of suffering is more painful: freezing temperatures or triple-digit heat? In Washington, where caveats and serious deliberation reign supreme, many veterans of prolonged outages can’t summon a clear-cut answer.

“Now that we’re in the heat, maybe I’d say this is worse,” hemmed Ed Grossman, deputy legislative counsel for the House of Representatives. He lives on Salem Way in Bethesda, one of those streets that Pepco routinely forgets and that is always among the last to get its power back. “But then again, how can I express this? Everyone’s miserable, and you don’t feel as badly when everyone is suffering with you. In the snowstorms, if a neighbor has one of those four-wheel drives, you feel this sense of unfairness.”

His wife, Rochelle Stanfield, said the multiple days without power during Snowmageddon in 2010 wrought a certain type of hell.

“You were cooped up. You couldn’t go out. You were trapped,” she said, sitting outside on a neighbor’s back porch in the relentless heat, sipping water from a thermos.

Then, Stanfield paused and contemplated. She remembered something about herself. “In severe cold,” she said, “my extremities turn very cold, and it hurts like hell.”

Great, it’s settled. Enduring freezing temperatures is the worst.

“But I’ve also fainted in the heat,” she quickly added. “Both heat and cold. Both are bad. It’s equal-opportunity badness.”

Doctors are clear where they stand on the matter. If they had to withstand a marathon Pepco outage (and it’s almost always a marathon Pepco outage, let’s not pretend otherwise), they’d prefer to endure it during the winter. Not in a heat wave. Because here’s how heat sickness turns into death:

“You start having severe muscle cramps,” explained Michael Kerr, an emergency doctor at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Olney. “Then, severe abdominal cramps. Nausea and vomiting start. Your muscles break down. Mental confusion. Maybe renal failure. Heat coma. Then, death.”

Freezing to death, this is preferable.

“Dying in the cold is very painless,” said Kerr, an experienced outdoorsman who likes camping in Montana and northern Idaho. “When you are out in the cold, you start getting confused, disoriented. You literally go to sleep.”

Last weekend, when Washington was hit by sweeping power outages, Kerr said, MedStar Health had a 50 percent increase in emergency visits from patients suffering from heat-related illnesses. Another reason he saw people flocking to the ER was that some aspiring heroes sliced their own body parts while using chain saws to cut up fallen trees.

(Which adds another grisly dynamic to the equation: Is chain-saw pain the worst of all? Kerr hedged. It’s a matter of how big the slice. “Chain saws don’t make clean wounds,” he said. “You get pretty chewed up.”)

Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University and the author of a book on the Chicago heat wave of 1995 that claimed more than 700 lives, says that American cities need more protections during heat wave/power outage double whammies.

“The vulnerable in cities tend to be isolated people, especially men,” said Klinenberg, who wrote “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.”

Literary types have been ruminating on these matters for years. They, too, have been ambivalent about which climate metes out the worst punishment. Hell, according to Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno,” stretches over multiple levels, and the worst one — the one inhabited by Satan — is actually freezing. (Other levels in hell involve feces and fire. Not a Pepco problem, at least not yet.)

Jack London, in his short story “To Build a Fire,” wrote about one man’s struggle with temperatures 50 below zero in the Yukon. The man tries to build a fire but ultimately freezes to death. London suggests it’s not too excruciating, comparing it to drowsing off into oblivion:

It was like taking an anesthetic. Freezing was not so bad as people thought. There were lots of worse ways to die.

Robert Frost, like so many Washingtonians, was maddeningly ambivalent in his conclusion on the shiver-swelter debate. Here’s his poem, “Fire and Ice”:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

In the Kensington neighborhood of Rock Creek Woods, an enclave of mid-century modern American homes full of artists, research scientists and therapists, Pati Young had a hard time answering The Question.

“Do you want to shoot me with a gun? Or stab me with a knife? I don’t even know how to answer that question,” declared Young, 56, a retired clinical social worker who is the Rock Creek Woods Civic Association’s president. “At least in the winter, you can put food out in the snow.”

But what about the physical pain?

“In the cold, you have to breathe that sharp air. And you can’t get that chill out of the bone. For people with muscular skeletal issues, the heat is better,” she said.

She ruminated a bit more.

“You can’t push the river,” Young said, somewhat esoterically. “It’s a zen concept. The river’s going to go where it needs to go.”

In Young’s case, the “river” led her to Chevy Chase Village, where she’s been toughing out the power outage at her brother’s home. Only problem there? He’s got two St. Bernards, and she’s slightly allergic.

“I am,” she said, pausing, “just dealing with it.”

Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team and enjoys writing about people who have served in the military and intelligence communities. He joined the Post in 2000 and has covered education, criminal justice, technology, and art crime.
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