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Lee: The Big (Shortlived) Chill smacks the Southland

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The Chamber of Commerce refers to them as winter residents and relishes the multi dollars brought into the local economy.

The locals, however, call them snowbirds and are less than enthusiastic about having to dodge those many extra cars with their out-of-state license plates who jam up and make even worse the already crowded streets and highways.

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Whatever name they’re called, they are down South to escape the snow and ice and howling winter winds of the upper Midwest. They know winter, but they learn that the definition of winter sure changes in Tucson, Ariz. Cactus folks define it differently. Up North, in January, when the sun is shining and the night temperature this 14 and the daytime temp 40, hey, that’s a Minnesota Nice day. In Tucson, however, those same numbers mean cold winter, bone-chilling, pipes-bursting, plumber-calling WINTER.

In mid-January this year, that kind of winter came to Tucson and lasted five whole days. It was an unwanted event that found temps falling to record-breaking levels, a skidding number that broke the record set in 1940. It got down to (gasp!) 20 degrees above zero. It was so cold that it was reported that some families went to bed and did something they had not done in years; they slept under covers.

The temperature collapse and winter were the topics that led every night’s TV news broadcasts, news that included community-service announcement on how to survive the northern arctic onslaught. It got worse. Two days later the thermometer plummeted farther, down to a criminal 17. Oh, the humanity! Apocalypse Now! School closings; city bus schedules meaningless; scarce winter clothing hauled out from closets. Siberia had come to the desert.

To the head-shaking snowbirds watching these responses to the city in mourning in the mornings, it was more amusing than frightening, knowing that back home this was just ordinary wintertime. Ho hum. There were a few things that were amazing to the northern birds, notably after a night of these winter assaults, the next morning often found car windshields bare of any frost. Such was the low or no humidity, the dry air of a city in the desert.

After five days, winter ended. Warmth returned. So did shorts, flip-flops and T-shirts. Tops came down again on convertibles, and motorcycles returned to the crowded, chaotic streets.

Not only did it get warm, it got hot; another record broken, but this time upward, to 81. Their winter was over but not forgotten. It sure was terrible while it lasted.

This column was written by Art Lee.

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