The first month of the year saw Madrid covered in snow for the first time in fifty years. She—the extratropical cyclone we fondly named ‘Filomena’—floated eastward all the way from the Atlantic to engulf us whole on the weekend of the 7th.
Madrid’s winters have always been hat-and-mittens-level cold, but never life-stopping; I only remember one or two snow days back in school. Hence the misguided excitement on the morning it snowed: the city, under its duvet of unadulterated white, seemed a new place altogether. My cats stared at the terrace in disbelief, and one of them even dared venture out, leaving a perfect paw-print mom was quick to photograph.
I wore ski clothes to the bar, predicting a tricky expedition to get there; with the whole bus system down, Uber was the only option. Granted, the weather conditions had upped the fare, and so the trip, which can cost less than five euros on a good night, would now be twenty-five quid and kind of tense (the driver was in an understandably foul mood). Whatever! My friend and I split the fare happily, like American kids who’d rented a limo for prom. It seemed a special event, positive; nobody stopped to think hey, the weather’s not supposed to work like that.
Halfway through drinks we stepped out for a snowball fight, most of us gloveless, some in heels. The bar, so standard and dull from years of unimaginative attendance, was a different setting than the one I’d been used to my whole life as we ducked and hid under the fence we queue at on Saturday nights. When tiredness settled, we rummaged through pockets and bags to find eyes, a nose, and a cigarette for the first snowman I’ve ever made in Madrid.
I kept asking: “Do you think the tube will be open tomorrow? Do you think the snow will melt for midday?”.
It was only at night that the snow looked ugly, that the city looked wrong under its new frozen coat.
Days later, we’d find out the snow had ravaged 600,000 of our trees, and almost 20% of Madrid’s urban greenery. Historical parks around the city lost about 70% too, mostly Mediterranean evergreens that never saw it coming. We’d ducked under and hopped over them on the way home, thinking nothing of it.
The snow provoked citywide celebration. We were in peak post-pandemic times, politically tense, and suddenly blessed with metaphorical respite: a unique, pretty weather event, white and pure and fresh. For the second time in its 102-year history, the metro stayed open 24 hours and was free. People used it to travel up the Castellana, Madrid’s aorta, a wide avenue that just so happens to be slanted. Those who kept skis at home treated the tube as a ski lift. Those who didn’t had to use their imagination, so there were children sledging on Ikea boxes, lunch trays, and one legend on a big paella pan.
My friend Camila, who is usually blasé and practical minded (read: a Virgo) shares how quickly she ran back home after the bar to share the moment with her family. She bumped into them trotting down the stairs with their dog Ferris in tow, all eager to see his reaction to first seeing snow.
“I’ve never seen my dog look as confused as he did when we opened the door. He hesitated for a few moments, and then jumped on the snow, which literally covered him (even though he’s a huge dog). He was jumping up and down, disbelieving and ecstatic. We spent a good half hour just watching him play”.
January 2021 Local residents step out into an unexpected winter wonderland
Vox used the snow to further their campaign in the same way they did the pandemic.
It was as though someone had scrubbed away Madrid’s contours, no distinction between road and pavement, no more streets in the way we knew them—which mattered very little, because since heavy flakes kept falling throughout the day very few cars were attempting travel by night-time. Camila, who lives on busy Serrano Street, might have been able to watch her dog play in the snow for the first time in her life—but she really doesn’t want another snowfall of this calibre.
“Even though it was an incredible experience, if it happened more often it would stop being special. Plus, it’s a financial strain on our government we could save”.
Indeed, the government’s competence in the crisis—because behind the scenes, that’s what it was, a crisis—was called into question throughout the next few days. Delays in clearing out the snow kept schools closed until January 20th. Madrid’s mayor, José Luis Martínez-Almeida, called for the declaration of the city as a disaster area, and estimated a cost of 1,398 million euros in damages caused by the storm.
“Us Spanish people love complaining about how the government does things, but in truth, Madrid lacks the necessary infrastructure to deal with a snowfall that happens once every century. It’s unfair for us to hold them to the same standards of speed and cleanliness as we do New York or Edinburgh”, Camila says, “Those two cities see several Filomenas every winter”.
A notion Santiago Abascal, leader of the far-right opposition party Vox, disagreed with. Whilst some of us spent the snow days photographing pets or meeting exes, Abascal’s group of followers set out to provide food and medicine to those the snow had trapped in. For four days, Vox’s leader coordinated his disciples with chunky cars to transport both medical staff and patients to hospitals, as well as supplies. A powerful initiative but a weaponised one, testament to how Spain does politics: Vox used the snow to further their campaign in the same way they did the pandemic. 19-year-old Jaime and his father Enrique, big supporters of the party, put their Land Rover at his service.
“We were warned”, says Álvaro, Jaime’s brother and Enrique’s son. “But none of us could foresee the severity of the storm, we weren’t aware of what was coming because we couldn’t imagine it. Madrid had no structures to deal with the situation, and people were left without cars as they didn’t prepare for the severity of Filomena”.
“If it had to happen again, I’d say please no, because of the suffering, cost, and accidents more than a meter of snow caused in Madrid. There’s rumours saying it’ll happen again this year. I recommend having chains on our cars, blankets, and paying attention to weather warnings”.
9 January 2021 Innovating on the city commute in Madrid
It is not supposed to snow in Madrid. Exceptional meteorological events are part of the global warming package; it’s scientifically proven that when the average temperatures vary, so do exceptional weather events.
On January 13th and as the dreary consequences of the storm unfolded, a discrete article by local newspaper elDiario shared then Eva García Balaguer’s opinion, from the Pirenaic Observatory for Climate Change: “Climate change is the evidence that historic variability of climate is accelerating beyond set parameters. This means there will be unbalances, which is why there’s such a strong presence of extreme phenomenon. Their frequency is going to increase, which is why we speak of emergency and changing awareness”.
The following days saw the city groan like a wounded beast. Waste disposal was blocked, and as the snow melted the trash emerged and lined the streets with grey sludge. Five were dead from hypothermia, all homeless people, who had been buried under the snow until it had melted down enough to reveal the tragedy.
This was a climate change disaster which cost Madrid millions, left us treeless and killed people, and yet most people’s memories of it consist of ski rides down the Castellana and snowball fights with strangers.
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