Of all nature's tantrums, a snowstorm is the most beguiling. Earthquakes shake our very being, tornadoes blow away our trailer parks, volcanoes evoke the wrath of Hades. But snow is pure, silent white magic from the heavens, blanketing the landscape and taming the toughest of towns. "God wins!" proclaimed Ed Knippers, who couldn't reach his Manassas, Va., office for days.
The blizzard of 1996 marched up the Eastern Seaboard and methodically shut down Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, the self-described hubs of the free world. The hills of West Virginia disappeared; drifts covered small ears and large dogs. Rangers searched Shenandoah National Park for hikers caught in the whiteout; airports became refugee camps. The post office couldn't deliver on its pledge to deliver despite rain or snow or any other precipitate. Hoboken, N.J., declared itself off-limits to any incoming vehicles. In Hartford, Conn., firefighters used metal detectors to locate hydrants. In Annapolis, Md., National Guardsmen drove a Humvee to deliver breast milk from a mother stranded at home to her twins under observation at a hospital. Tempers rose, roofs collapsed, schools closed up, shovels sold out, commuter trains stopped, started and stopped again.
Across the region, at least 100 deaths were attributed to the weather. New York City estimated it lost a billion dollars in revenue-- $4 million in unwritten traffic tickets and parking meters unfilled. Sanitation trucks dumped 20,400 tons of salt on city streets; in Philadelphia, plows pushed 20 million tons of snow toward the curb. The Saturday before the blizzard, Giant Food stores in the nation's capital had their biggest day ever. Milk, bread--and toilet paper--sold out. Alas, prudence dictated hoarding; six days after the storm, parts of D.C. were still unplowed (page 29).
Elsewhere, life had pretty much returned to normal by the end of the week. A Friday storm was a poor imitation of the Big One, leaving only mush and ice in its wake. Instead of heroism, it was time again for human frailties. New York's tabloids wondered why that Sanitation Department employee was clearing a private parking lot instead of a SoHo firehouse. (After front-page pictures, the plowman was suspended.) The federal government was set to reopen again this week, the bluster of budget politics notwithstanding. A Canadian neighbor was left with the task of putting American misery in perspective. "I'm rather amused," said Mayor John Murphy of St. John's, Newfoundland. "I don't like to chuckle at people's misfortunes. But on television, it didn't look like very much." We'll see if he's still chuckling when the polar icecap arrives at his doorstep.
The Trail of the Blizzard
When high winds over the Rockies combined with a low-pressure system over Louisiana, the jet stream turned sharply northeast along the East Coast. After gathering moisture, and getting hit with a blast of arctic air, it became the blizzard of '96. 1996 PREVIOUS BLIZZARD BLIZZARDS Boston 18.2" 23.6" (1978) Philadelphia 30.7" 21.3" (1983) Newark 28.0" 26.4" (1947) New York City 20.6" 26.4" (1947) Baltimore 22.5" 24.0" (1922) Washington, D.C. 17.1" 28.0" (1922)
SOURCE WEATHER SERVICES CORPORATION (WSC), PENN STATE UNIV. DEPT. OF METEOROLOGY