Friday, December 17, 2010

Worst Snowstorms in U.S. History

After driving this morning in extremely snowy conditions it got me thinking what have been the worst snowstorms in our nation's history. There are many more storms that I found and could have listed here such as blizzards that occured in 1899, 1913, 1950, 1967, 1996, 2006. These just happen to be the six most extreme and unique that our country has seen.

1) The Great Snow of 1717 - Native Americans could not recall a story in their oral tradition which rivaled the magnitude of this winter storm that hit the colonies in New England. The storm started at the end of February with major bouts of snow hitting on the 1st of March, the 4th and another on the 7th. All together, four storms in about a ten day period totaled over five feet of snow in some areas along with reports of drifting to the point that people could only leave their homes from their second story windows. With poor record keeping at the time and a scarce population outside the New England region it is unclear to what extent the storm reached. The Reverend Cotton Mather, remembered for his role in the Salem Witch Trials, wrote a detailed account of the snowstorm, which was also the first publication of the Massachusettes Historical Society, "As mighty a snow, as perhaps has been known in the memory of man, is at this time lying on the ground." Reports of the damage this storm caused were fairly scattered. Post roads were reported to have had drifts as high as 25 feet in the Boston region and areas north. Various reports talked about how nearly 95% of the deer population in the region was wiped out with "deer-reserves" being established in the aftermath to preserve the species. Wolves and other predators even moved into populated areas seeking food, killing livestock and threatening humans. John Winthrop reported that a herd of sheep was buried under snow for 28 days and was dug out alive and well. How those sheep survived is unclear.

2) The Great White Hurricane of 1888 - If one needs to look for a benchmark on which all other blizzards are measured it is the one which occured in March 1888. Ironically this was actually the second major winter storm to hit the United States that year. In January the middle of the country was hit with extremely frigid temperatures dropping as low as -52 degrees. Some areas saw a swing in temperature from 70 degrees to -40 degrees in a matter of days. Nearly 240 people lost their lives which was a large number considering the sparce population between Minnesota and Texas. Livestock also took a major toll due to the low temperatures with cattle getting hardest hit. Many historians have attributed this event to the downfall of the free-range cattle industry. The more famous blizzard however that year was the one that occurred in March. In a 48 hour period anywhere from 40-55 inches of snow fell on areas of New York, Massachusetts, Conneticut, and New Jersey with winds hitting 45 miles per hour. Many people were stuck in their homes for over a week. Telegraph lines were disabled resulting in some cities like Montreal, Washington D.C. and Boston being isolated for days. In the aftermath numerous states, such as New York, buried their telegraph and telephone lines to prevent storms like this in the future from disabling major means of communication. Road and rail lines were also effected making them impassable for days with drifts in some areas taking over a week to clear. The shutdown of transportation for so long in these major cities resulted in underground subways being constructed with the first one opening only nine years later in Boston. Fire departments were immoblized and fires raged in certain areas resulting in millions of dollars in damage. Even shipyards and ships at sea were effected. Over 200 ships were grounded or wrecked with nearly 100 seamen losing their lives. Being March the average temperatures are typically above freezing so when the snow started to melt flooding occured especially in Brooklyn. With so much snow piled up many areas, New York foremost on the list, attempted to push as much snow as possible into the Atlantic.

3) The "Knickerbocker Storm" of 1922 - Very few storms are named after the damage it caused however this was a tragic event. In January 1922 a low formed over Georgia and slowly began moving northward. By the time it hit the Carolinas the snow began to fall and reached all the way to Philadelphia. The storm stalled and snowed over two days resulting in over 20 inches of snow throughout the area. It was some of the most snowfall ever recorded in a 24 hour period and some of the most snowfall seen in the Mid-Atlantic states until the blizzard in February of 2010. The biggest story of the snow storm was located in Washington D.C. at the Kinckerbocker Theatre. Despite two-days of blizzard conditions around 500 people decided to attend the theater the evening of January 28th to watch a movie. At around 9:00pm the weight of over 20 inches of snow on top of the Knickerbocker's flat roof gave way. Witnesses stated that there was no indication that the roof was coming down it simply just gave way. Mass confusion insued in the aftermath. One man recorded his account of being trapped in the rubble.
“I grabbed for my hat and coat, and the next minute found myself flat on my face with something weighty on top. I lay still for about five minutes when I noticed at the side of me a girl with an arch or pillar resting upon her. I tried to pull it off but couldn’t move it. Then I started work­ing my way slowly in some direction – I think the middle – and with four other fellows we saw a hole with a light shining through. The next thing I know I was on the street, but I don’t know how I got there. I stayed around for a while and helped several others, who were apparently uninjured, out of the place. It was a frightful sight within, nothing but moans, cries and darkness.” (Retrieved December 17, 2010, http://www.weatherbook.com/knickerbocker.htm)
Family members and pedstrians tried to rush in to help with no real organized rescue efforts in place. People took lanterns and moved throughout the rubble looking for loved ones and survivors. One reporter compared the scene to something out of World War 1. Once police and fire crews arrived the rescue effort saw better results. By 2:30am over 600 rescue workers were on the scene including the military. Residents in the area brought out hot food and coffee to the rescuers due to the frigid temperatures. A small boy was even sent in to distribute medicine to those still alive, under the wreckage, and in pain. A makeshift hospital was established in a nearby candy store and every hospital in the city was overloaded with patients as a result of the collapse. The rescue was not fully completed until the following afternoon and after all was said and done the final toll was 98 people dead and 133 people injured. It still goes down as one of the worst disasters and one of the largest single snow falls in Washington D.C.'s history.

4) Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 - This snow storm is known more for how it started and the result of that than anything else. As the morning of November 11, 1940, Armistice Day, broke it was unseasonable warm. All the way up in Minnesota temperatures in the early afternoon reached 60 degrees. In fact due to the fantastic weather conditions hundreds of hunters went out to the Mississippi River looking to take advantage of the great duck hunting conditions. The weather deterioriated quite quickly however, and temperatures dropped rapidly, winds picked up, rain changed to sleet and then eventually snow. Snow fell throughout the rest of the day and night. Overall snowfalls reached over 25 inches with winds reaching 50-80 miles per hour. The only forecasting station in the region was located in Chicago. Therefore forecasts had not predicted the extreme drop in temperature and major snow fall and wind. As a result many of the hunters along the Mississippi River were stranded. When the storm first broke many hunters took shelter on small islands in the middle of the river. With 50 mile per hour winds and waves hitting over five feet high the encampments were overrun. Some tried to swim across the river and drowned while others that tried to stay on the island actually froze to death as a result of single-digit temperatures and a lack of proper winter clothing. Casualities were actually lessened by the herorics of pilot Max Conrad and one of his students, John Bean. After the storm passed Conrad and his student flew up and down the river in the Minnesota/Wisconsin region dropping supplies to survivors. In addition the storm caused five ships to sink on Lake Michigan with a total of 66 sailors losing their lives. The following is a great article written in the Herald Journal in 2004 detailing out another account from someone who lived through the blizzard (http://www.herald-journal.com/archives/2004/stories/snow.html). The complete surprise of the storm was due to a lack of local forecasting. As a result of the lives lost in this snow storm covereage of weather events was expanded to 24 hours a day and local forecasting station were built to give more accurate information outside of just major cities like Chicago.

5) The Blizzard of '78 - Thanks to the blizazrd of 1978 my parents and grandparents will always use it as the benchmark in which they compare all future snow storms. When the barometric pressure records the lowest non-tropical level ever recorded in the United States then you know something bad is about to happen. The hardest hit states for the storm were Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, and worst of all Ohio where 51 people died as a result. Snowfall totals reached 40-50 inches, wind gusts neared 100 miles per hour, and wind chills dropped to -60 degrees. Despite hearing stories from my family for years about that blizzard I asked my mom the other night about what her experience was like during the blizzard. One part of the story I found most interesting was the family listening to the radio stations of two local cities located north and south of them. The station was relaying information about how the only people able to get around were snowmobiliers. A group of them were actually worked to bring vital medical supplies from one of the city's hospitals to the other. The radio broadcaster would excitedly talk about how the group made it to a certain point and were safe. Then another report would come in that they had made it to another point, slowly they moved along the snow covered route that was once a fast moving two lane state highway. She even talked about how the snow was so deep and the drifting was so bad that one of their cars was buried in snow until May, nearly five months later. The following is another account I found written during the 30th anniversary year of the blizzard of 1978. What a story this is, I would love the opportunity to interview her.
"I well remember the blizzard of 1978!  I was snowbound for three days with my husband, daughter and step-son near Kansas, Ohio.  My husband was ill and needed a blood transfusion.   We hadn't lived there very long and had no close neighbors, so I called the local volunteer fire department.  Those wonderful people who didn't know us from Adam fought their way through several drifts on our small side road to rescue us. Then they stood in the field across the road holding flares and landed a national guard helicopter that took my husband into Fostoria Hospital for blood. One of the firemen, Don Conley, insisted the kids and I go home with him.  In the coming two days the Conley family and us became fast friends. Their son and friends took snow mobiles and went to a local farmer who had milk and no way to transport it.  The kids said it was the best milk they ever tasted.  Tom, Carol and Don have all passed on, but those of us left behind will never forget that winter.  God Bless the Kansas Volunteer Fire Department, which many years later my son-in-law became a member of.  My daughter ended up working with a nurse who is married to one of the guys who was on that helicopter. It truly is a small world full of wonderful people. Thank you for allowing me to share." - Jodee (Retrieved December 17, 2010, http://www.wtol.com/Global/story.asp?S=7780807)
If you talk with anyone that lived through that event you will quickly be able to dig up a fasicinating and sometimes adventerous story. For the Baby Boomer generation this will always be the blizzard to end all blizzards and from the sound of it, they might be right.

6) The 1993 "Storm of the Century" - The uniqueness of this storm lies not so much in the amounts of snow fall and drifting we find in other blizzards but in the massive size of the storm itself. At the height of storm it reached from Canada to Central America with the brunt of it hitting the Eastern United States. The storm actually marked the first time the National Weather Service was able to accurately predict the severity of storm five days in advance. States of emergency were issued in Northeastern states two days before the storm hit. Despite Southern states being told of the coming freeze, mild temperatures that lead up to the storm caused many to believe the predictions of cold temperatures and snow was not going to happen. Many local TV news stations were hesitant to report the numbers being given rom the NWS because they seemed ridiculous but they turned out to be right. Midday, March 12th the temperatures began to drop rapidly from Maine to Florida and Texas. Thundersnow, which is more like a thunderstorm than a blizzard but with snow rather than rain, fell from Texas to Pennsylvania and recorded over 60,000 lightning strikes. Snowfalls as high as 69 inches were found in parts of Tennessee, 12-16 inches in Alabama, and nearly four inches on the Florida panhandle along with hurricane force winds. In addition to the snow, 11 tornadoes were reported in parts of Florida and Louisiana. Ships in the Gulf of Mexico and all the way up the East Coast of the United States had trouble, with some actually sinking including the "Fantastico" which lost seven crew members off the coast of Florida. Nearly one hundred pleasure crafts and charter boats sank as a result of the storm. For me this is the first storm I am actually able to have a vivid memory about. As a Midwestern living in rural Indiana the biggest element of the storm I remembered was the ice. Anywhere from one-fourth to an inch of ice covered everything. Everywhere you looked from the tops of trees which hung extremely low to the ground below was covered. Being in the country it did not take long for us to lose our electricity and because of that we had to find shelter for the night. My dad loaded up the family and we slowly drove into town, staying the night at a motel, which at the time I thought was so cool. Despite the dangerous conditions and lack of electricity which forced us out of our home it was a beautiful picture. My mom took some great shots of our property and all the ice made for a picturesque scene. Throughout the United States the storm caused extensive damage totaling over six billion dollars. Although other storms have had higher snow falls and drifting the magnitude of this storm's size and how much of the United States was affected made it one of the largest one-piece storms in recorded history and therefore made it the "storm of the century."

10 comments:

  1. I was 12 years old during the blizzard of 1978. I remember it very well. The night the snow storm hit, my parents were out for the night and a neighbor was babysitting me. I went back to my house to let my dog out and this little black thing ran past me into our house. It was a 5 month old puppy. Someone had dumped the dog out into the cold that night. The cruelty of some people. Had that dog not found me, he would have froze to death that night. The good news is that the little puppy became our second dog for 18 years. I used to say that he jumped off Santa's sleigh and was a late Christmas present for me. Jennifer, Cleveland, Ohio

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  2. I remameber two of these storms well. I live in Louisisna and the '78 storm grazed us if you call 8 inches of snow and high winds later. The '93 storm was pretty awesome as there were about 12 or more states that got snow.

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  3. I live in Columbus Indiana,have all my life. I was 9 years old when the Blizzard of 78'hit. Of course at that age it was all fun for me and my friends. I think we missed 3 or more weeks of school. The only way to get get around was to walk or if you were lucky enough to have a snowmobile. Which by the way a ton more people had them back then just because back then we had snow every year. Now my dad left to go to work that first morning of the storm and only made it to the end of are road and got stuck the snow at the time was still at a manageable but even still we weren't able to get are car unstuck. Cars were already stuck and of course my dad says ahh I can make it . I can remember laughing as he walked back up to the house. I can't remember if we lost power at our house but I do remember dad had put in a new wood stove I think that summer. I remember using it to heat the house and are house I believe was around 1500sqt. We actually had to open a few windows and doors because we had that wood stove cranked up so much that it got so hot in the house heck we even all had shorts on lol. The snow was so deep half the house was buried by the snow so that meant dad had to dig us out. We ended up needing a few things from the store after a few days with a family of 5 (3 kid). My dad went to the garage got are kids sled and of course we were bundled up like u could imagine. Anyway my dad pulled that sled with me and I think either my brother or sister. He pulled us at least 3 miles to what used to be Mikes IGA on what used to be 31A now it's called 11. So 6 miles of pulling 2 kids on the sled with bags of food and milk several paper gallons of the paper cartons of milk. I remember it seemed that slowly day by day things slowly got better for us. One of the biggest problems was road crews trying to dig out the roads with cars scattered everywhere and most of them u couldn't even see. When some roads were dug out u had at least 10ft of snow on the each side other the Road. Now being a kid during this time at my age was scary but yet very very much fun. I know we've had so called blizzards since but the Blizzard of 78 in Columbus Indiana will always be the worst for me and we've not seen anything close to what and how things were back then.

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  4. I hear that so often from people and especially my family who is originally from central Indiana. Thanks for sharing your story Brad.

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  5. I'd note that in 1978, there were two blizzards. The one you remember hit the Midwest, the one I remember is the one that hit New England and New York. I was stuck at work from Sunday through Wednesday in Hudson Massachusetts, while the snow drifted over the roof of the one story part of my building. The drifts when I did drive home were anywhere from four to six feet deep, and it was strangely quiet. Good times, good times.

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  6. I appreciate your comment and through my research on this snowstorm I did come across a lot on the New England side part of the storm. In light of the recent snowstorm and your comment I believe I am going to need to edit this post.

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  7. i was in 2 of these storms the 1978 storm and the 1993 storm i was liveing in western pa. for both storms and from what i seen the 1978 storm here was far worse then the 1993, the 1993 storm was bad but at least i was able to drive on the road after it hit to get home,the 1978 storm shut the state down here for a week.

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  8. BLIZZARD OF 1978. I was a junior in high school during that snow storm. My parents grew up in the 1950's. 4x4 vehicles were almost non-existent in their day. But most everybody had a set of chains for their car. Those old chains were hanging in our garage. So I put them on my 1969 Camaro Z28. And began giving friends rides home. However by the 11th hour that night the storm was peaking. Even my jacked up muscle car with posi-trac and chains had to be left on the shoulder of US Highway 31. It was a bit embarrassing to have to leave her behind. But that all went away the next day when we went back to shovel her out ....... because there wasn't anything out there with her, except abandoned 4x4's, and stuck highway plow trucks. She evidently was the little engine that could. Doug Westfield High.

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