Sunday, 15 January 2017

THE GREAT BLIZZARD OF 1899

A snowball fight on the front steps of the Florida
Capitol Building in Tallahassee, February 13, 1899
(US Public Domain)
Living in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan (19 of those in Regina) for the first 24 years of my life, I know personally what erratic weather is all about. Almost every summer there was--and still is--at least one full week where the mercury reaches between 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit (35-38 degrees Celsius). Yes, heat does exist throughout the Canadian West in those “dog days of summer.”  But a dry heat, not coupled with the high humidity of, say, Southern Ontario, where I have lived since 1976. A prairie friend of mine described Ontario’s heat and humidity best when he came here in 1975: “It’s like breathing through a sponge.”

Still, the prairies have always been known for its frigid temperatures and snowstorms. The worst recorded blizzard that this continent has ever seen, however, spread from Saskatchewan all the way down through the United States to the northern Caribbean. The resulting weather system tied up this wide swath of land for several days, bringing everything to a standstill. Ironically, Canada was not affected that much. The Eastern United States, by comparison, bore the full brunt of it. This phenomenon began when two fronts collided in what could best be described as an once-in-a-lifetime fluke: a Perfect Storm scenario, you could say, using more modern terms.

It all started on February 10, 1899 when record-high barometric reports--in the form of dense, frigid air--were tracked over the District of Assiniboia, North West Territories (a southern Canadian landmass absorbed into the new province of Saskatchewan six years later in 1905). At the same time, a series of winter storms that first week of the month had already deposited a large amount of snow over the American Great Plains and Midwest, keeping the cold air coming out of the Canadian prairies from warming up as it worked toward the usually mild southern states. It’s interesting to note that cold temperatures seemed to be the norm earlier that February all the way out to the West Coast. Days prior to the storm, Los Angeles, California saw 33 degrees Fahrenheit (1 C), and Portland, Oregon hit 9 F (13 C).

Meanwhile, the previously mentioned front over the District of Assiniboia now had a clear path to move quickly with high winds and wet, heavy snow in its wake from Maine to Florida, from Montana and the Dakotas to Louisiana, and as far west as the Lone Star state of Texas. Following the snow, plummeting temperatures moved in. For days, people were house-bound, businesses closed in masse, water pressure dropped, pipes burst, coal and furnace deliveries were disrupted, livestock perished, snow and ice damaged buildings, and barge and boat traffic was halted on the Great Lakes and the length of Mississippi River.

Some of the American centers that set then-record temperatures during The Great Blizzard of 1899 are as follows (in Fahrenheit, followed by Celsius):

Rapid City, South Dakota:
-39 F (-40 C)
Sioux Falls, South Dakota: -42 F (-41 C)
Milligan, Ohio: -39 F (-39.4 C) still the record low for Ohio
Fort Logan, Montana: -61 F (-51.7 C)
Cape May, New Jersey: 0 F (-18 C) still their record low
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: -20 F (-29 C) their coldest temperature on record until -22 F (-30 C) on January 19, 1994
Kansas City, Missouri: -22 F (-30 C) their coldest temperature on record until December 1989
Monterey, Virginia: -29 F (-34 C) lowest for Virginia until 1985
Washington, DC: -15 F (-26 C) still their record low
Raleigh, North Carolina: -2 F (-19 C)
Austin, Texas: -1 F (-18 C)
Dallas, Texas: -8 F (-18.3 C)
San Antonio, Texas: 4 F (-15.6 C)
Atlanta, Georgia: -9 F (-23 C) still their record low
Gainesville, Florida: 6 F (-14.4 C) still their record low
Tallahassee, Florida: -2 F (-19 C) the only recorded below-zero Fahrenheit temperature in Florida

Towns along the West Coast of Florida reported snow flurries without significant on-the-ground accumulation. Washington, DC witnessed 51 straight hours of snowfall that eventually amounted to 34 inches. Baltimore, Maryland and Cape May, New Jersey--situated along the Atlantic and very seldom had snow--saw approximately the same amount of snow as Washington. Cape May’s snowfall is still the most ever in that state. Ice flows--called drift ice--meandered from the mouth of the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, of all places.

The port of New Orleans was completely iced over and had so much snow that the city had to delay its Mardi Gras celebrations—shockingly for the revelers--until the streets could be plowed out. It was also the city’s coldest February 14 Mardi Gras on record at 7 F (-14 C). In the northeast, the storm dropped 16 inches of snow on New York’s Central Park, while surrounding areas received 2-3 feet of the dense white stuff. The storm even reached the island of Cuba, where it didn’t snow but did leave a hard frost that either killed or damaged crops on the tropical island.

By February 14, after four days, the storm was officially over, leaving 100 dead and millions devastated. To put the 1899 Blizzard in perspective, the worse snowstorm to hit the southern states since has been the 1985 Deep Freeze that destroyed many Florida citrus groves, thus sending up prices at the grocery stores of the ones that did make it. The result: The freeze convinced the Florida citrus growers to move their crops further south, where they remain today.


Wouldn’t you know it, within a week, most the area affected by the February 1899 storm enjoyed early spring-like conditions, as the snow melted about as fast as it had first appeared. The Great Blizzard of 1899 (also called The Great Arctic Outbreak of 1899 and the Deep South Deep Freeze) is still considered the point of reference that all other American southeast winter storms are measured by.

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