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February 9, 2010 / Dave Gorham

The Great Blizzard(s)

In light of all the snow that has fallen over the Mid-Atlantic and quite aware of even more snow to come, I started to wonder about how what’s being called Snowmageddon 2010 stacks up compared to previous blizzards. Is this past weekend’s blizzard of the Mid-Atlantic states destined for the record books? Yes. Is it the storm of the century? We’ll have to wait and see what the next 90 years has to offer. Is it worthy of “Snowmageddon “? Probably (at least for this year). Is it “generational”? Likely. Is it the snowstorm of all snowstorms? No.

“Snowmageddon, 2010.” Washington, D.C. yesterday. Photo: AFP

I can’t help but think of past blizzards and what many others have had to cope with — and that includes the relative surprise of the storm due to the lack of modern weather forecasting (the first weather satellite, for instance, wasn’t launched until 1959), the lack of heavy snow-removal equipment and likely the lack of planning and business continuity that is standard operating procedure in the early 21st century. Fascination and a little research found quite a few storms, typically nor’easters, which brought tremendous snowfall to not only Washington, D.C., but many, many East Coast locations. My list is far from complete, but here are a few stand-out storms; as a native New Yorker I’ll start with the Great Blizzard of 1888.

The Great Blizzard of 1888 (aka: The Great White Hurricane), March 11-14, 1888. New York City. What started as rain with relatively mild temperatures quickly turned into a raging nor’easter and dumped 58 inches of snow atop New York City. Drifts were reported to average 30-40ft (that’s feet) high. Accumulations of 40-50in were common from New Jersey to New England. A maximum wind gust of 80mph was recorded. There were 400 deaths.

The Great Blizzard of 1888. Notice the snow-covered power and phone lines? These lines are now underground thanks to a project that began after this storm. Photo: The New York Historical Society.

The Great Blizzard of 1899 (aka: The Snow King). Starting in Florida on February 12, blizzard conditions were reported as far south as Tampa. Single-digit temperatures and more than a foot of snow reached North Carolina on the 14th; it was 29F in Miami. Many areas of the Mid-Atlantic region and New England received 2-3ft of snow; some areas near 4ft of snow. The Port of New Orleans iced over. A hard frost hit Cuba.

The Great Blizzard of 1899 Fayetteville Street, Raleigh, NC. Photo: 

The Great Blizzard of 1922 (aka: The Knickerbocker Storm), January 27-28, 1922. The Knickerbocker Storm took its name from Washington, D.C’s Knickerbocker Theater which collapsed under the weight of the snow and killed 98 people (the 5-year old Knickerbocker was the newest and largest theater in D.C. but its flat roof was unable to support the weight of the snowfall). In true nor’easter fashion, the Arctic blast moved offshore and collided with the relatively warm waters of the North Atlantic and the (even warmer) waters of the Gulfstream. The slow moving storm brought 19-20in of snow to many areas of Maryland, Virginia and New England. Officially Washington, D.C. recorded 28in, but just to the north there were reports of 30-33 inches. 36 inches of snow blanketed the transportation corridors between Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia. The Knickerbocker disaster ranks as one of the worst in D.C. history.

Washington, D.C. during the Knickerbocker Storm of 1922. Photo:

The Great Blizzard of 1978 (aka: The Northeast Blizzard of 1978), February 5-7. I was a Long Island high school student for this one and was more concerned about having the day off from school than anything else. Upwards of 2ft of snow fell across New England. Wind gusts of 86mph were measured. There were 100 deaths. Most New Englanders consider this to be the true Storm of the Century, but at least some of that can be blamed on their distrust of the National Weather Service. Though weather forecasting had made great strides in the ’70s, the general public was still skeptical and when the early morning snow failed to arrive, most wrote off the warnings as yet another failed forecast. When the snow finally started later in the afternoon, thousands of people were then caught unprepared while at school or work. Thousands of people were stranded for days, unable to get home. Schools were indeed closed in New York City, a rare event. Coastal flooding was another issue as the highest winds of the storm had the poor timing of arriving during a full moon and high tide. This caused some of the worst inland flooding on the shore of Long Island, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts ever recorded.

An early ’70s Maverick (in need of at least a ring job) surrounded by mountains of plowed snow. Photo: NOAA

The Great Blizzard of 1978’s 500millibar panel (equivalent to 18,000ft MSL) showing the monster upper-level low pressure area over the Great Lakes beginning to take shape. Image: NOAA

The Great Blizzard of 1993 (aka: The Storm of the Century), March 12-13, 1993. Though its impressive reach touched Central America and the Canadian Maritimes at the same time, it was the East Coast that received the main impact: 1-2ft of snow across the NY TriState region and the Midwest. Both Birmingham, AL and Montreal, QC were covered by about 17in of snow. The maximum amount of snow (60in) was recorded in Mount Le Conte, TN. Most snowfall amounts, especially for the Midwest and New England were not overwhelming, however the time of year made this a significant late-season snow event. Though other storms brought more snow, the impressive scope of this storm including wind, pressure, size made this storm truly worthy of its moniker, “The Storm of the Century.”

Satellite image of The Great Blizzard of 1993. Image: NOAA

A more complete list of East Coast blizzards and nor’easters is here.









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