Saturday, August 09, 2008

Recollections of the Blizzard of 1966

...The 1966 blizzard was in March. What I recall is how I had to go to the barn and was worried about going off-course and freezing to death. I could not tend to my sheep during that blizzard because it was just too difficult to find [my way] and the building was completely buried. One of my good friends and neighbors lost all of his sheep who were electrocuted when the barn collapsed due to the weight of the snow. We were fortunate in that we did not loose a single sheep or lamb. They were all huddled together bleating when I dug four feet down to the top of the door. I did suffer an injury though jumping from a building onto the sharp tinge of the manure spreader. The sharp prong went through my boot. I had no idea that the manure spreader was anywhere near where I was jumping. I was just trying to feed my sheep and in a hurry. It was amazing to have buildings buried. It was not easy to get me to the doctor for a tetanus shot and treatment because of the drifts. It was the worst blizzard of my memory and I learned the lesson "Look Before You Leap" does not eliminate the radius of the risk. - Mike Rustad (who still to this day tells tales of Humboldt to his law students in far-off Boston...)

From a recent Grand Forks Herald article:

In these parts, blizzards come and go, but the biggest ones earn lasting respect.

"I think it's the same with hurricanes and with severe thunderstorms and tornadoes," said Leon Osborne, director for UND's Regional Weather Information Center. "It's just kind of this fascination for the incredible awe, the power. It's so much greater than anything we as humans produce. And there's nothing you can do about it. It overpowers you."

The most storied blizzard of recent years is the winter of 1996-97's eighth blizzard. Many recalled the storm this week on its 10th anniversary by its Herald-given name, Hannah.

If luck be a lady, Hannah was snake-eyes lousy. Its preceding rain, freezing rain and sleet, followed by blinding snow, helped push the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Flood of '97 into certified disaster status. That icy entrance, combined with powerful winds, also downed several thousand power poles and humbled hundreds of thousands of people while crippling the region's electrical power grid.

"Hannah didn't do anybody any favors," said John Wheeler, chief meteorologist for Grand Forks' WDAZ TV and Fargo's WDAY TV and Radio.

Blizzard Hannah was the ice queen cometh show-stopping royalty with a grand entrance that demonstrated spectacularly poor timing.

But a storm that would be king?

Stormy Rivalries

Today is championship day for the NCAA's men's hockey Frozen Four. If significant Red River region blizzards of the past 100 years could be narrowed to a kind of "Frozen Four," would Hannah qualify? And which storms would it rival?

Consulting with local severe weather authorities, the Herald settled on this subjective list of "Blizzard Frozen Four" candidates (in chronological order):

-- March 1941 "Ides of March Blizzard"

-- March 1966 blizzard

-- January 1975 "Super Bowl Blizzard"

-- April 1997 "Blizzard Hannah"

"I'd rank (Hannah) up there among the great blizzards because of the incredible amount of hardship that it caused," Wheeler said. "I think that's as good a way to rank blizzards as any."

Osborne agrees: "In the last 30 years, (Hannah) is probably the most intense storm that we've had. But from the standpoint of blizzards (of the century), historically speaking, I'd barely put it in the top four."

If the magnitude of snow produced is the primary consideration, Osborne said, the 1966 blizzard "was clearly the winner. . . . We have not seen a repeat of that storm environment in 40 years."

Wheeler, too, said the '66 storm "was spectacular" in several respects. "The winds were between 40 and 50 mph most of the time the blizzard was going on. It was about 20 below." That more people didn't die, Wheeler said, is probably a testimony of better media weather coverage than existed in March 1941, when 71 people died during a "Alberta clipper" blizzard.

Wheeler said blizzards are difficult to rank because, unlike hurricanes and tornadoes, they feature multiple components that aren't nearly as easily measured.

Mark Ewens, a veteran meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, gives preference to wind speeds and extremely low pressure an intense storm staple when informally ranking blizzards. He ranks the '75 Super Bowl Blizzard first, followed by the '66 blizzard and '97's Hannah.

Observational records influence his fourth choice, a blizzard that struck North Dakota in March 1920 as his fourth choice. Fewer people are alive who remember the deadly 1920 storm. But that might not clarify matters.

"On the whole, people have really bad weather memories," Ewens said. "When we start looking at particulars, our memory tends to inflate things, especially as we get older."

Added Larry Skroch, a Grand Forks man who co-authored books about the '41 and '66 blizzards: "If you ever get caught in a storm, that's going to be the one that you remember. . . . Whatever you're doing when it hits, you remember."

That's one of the reasons he respects the '75 "Super Bowl Blizzard," which swept through the Upper Midwest right before the Minnesota Vikings' loss in New Orleans to the Pittsburgh Steelers. "My mother got caught in that one," the Cogswell, N.D., native says, so "it's a little personal for me."

But Skroch ranked the '41 and '66 blizzards as the worst the former because of the extent of human tragedy, the latter because of its paralyzing duration and massive livestock deaths. And he's very partial to Hannah, too.

Ewens, Wheeler and Skroch noted that the freezing cold weather Blizzard Hannah ushered into the valley, lasting several days, helped to stretch the Red River crest past Fargo, probably sparing it from Grand Forks-type flood damage.

Blizzards tend to be the Rodney Dangerfield of major weather storms. "Blizzards are kind of the forgotten stepchild in the weather world. Unless they're occurring on the East Coast, it's almost as if the country isn't aware of them," Osborne said.


  1. Anonymous9:46 PM

    I remember the blizzard of 1975. I was about 12 and lived on Grand Forks AFB. I'll never forget that wind chill, -80. The wind was so intense that it got beyond our storm windows and left snow inside the house. Our dog got left out and survived by digging a cave in the snow -- he popped up out of a drift 2 days later. All the weather in ND was severe, but I'll never forget that one.

  2. Jennifer Hoyt8:49 AM

    I was 10yrs old and lived in Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota, during the blizzard of 1966. The AFB was pretty much shut down & they snowplowed the runways 1st. Then they got shuttle service to us for groceries, etc. I remembered not being able to go across the street to my friend's house
    due to the snow. We had snow drifts up to 1 story high & had lots of fun jumping off the garage roof into the snow after the blizzard ended. It's amazing more people didn't die during this storm. I remember hearing that it was -20 degrees. Then my father retired to San Antonio TX the next year and we moved to hot weather, quite a contrast.