Natural and Man-Made Disasters


What were the harshest blizzards to hit the United States?

Regions of the United States—particularly the Great Plains, Midwest, and New England—typically experience extreme winter weather, but some storms do stand out. In March 1888 the northeast was hit by a blizzard dubbed the Great White Hurricane. After a warm spell that had caused the buds to open on trees in New York’s Central Park, on March 12 the temperature in the city plummeted to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and winds off the Atlantic built up to 48 miles per hour, bringing unpredicted snow that continued intermittently until the early morning of March 14. The three-day accumulation totaled 20.9 inches, and snowdrifts 15 to 20 feet high halted traffic. The snowfall was even greater elsewhere, averaging 40 inches or more in parts of southeastern New York and southern New England. The storm extended down into Chesapeake Bay, isolating the nation’s capital from the world for more than a day. Two hundred ships were lost or grounded, and at least 100 died at sea. A total of at least 400 people died, half of them in New York City alone. Just two months before this nor’easter, another blizzard had swept through the Great Plains, moving eastward into Minnesota. There, high winds, blowing snow, and sudden drops in temperature combined to make it a dangerous storm, killing many people and thousands of cattle.

The Great Blizzard of 1993 caused loss of life and extensive damage all along the eastern seaboard, from Maine to Florida. More than 300 people died, almost 50 of them at sea, and economic losses totaled $3 to $6 billion. While several so-called “100-year storms” have bombarded the East Coast in the 1990s alone (there had been another just a few months earlier, in December 1992), the statistics of the March 1993 storm are impressive indeed, probably qualifying it as the storm of the century. Wind gusts exceeded 75 miles per hour all along the East Coast, with winds exceeding 100 miles per hour were measured at various points, including Flattop, North Carolina. Tennessee saw the highest snowfall of the storm, with 56 inches at Mount LeConte. Snowfall amounts were also heavy in the northeast, but snow accumulated as far south as the Florida Panhandle. Experts estimated that the amount of water that fell (in the form of snow) was equivalent to 40 days’ flow of the mighty Mississippi River past New Orleans. According to record-low barometer readings, this storm surpassed Hurricanes Hugo (1989) and Hazel (1954).

However, midwesterners and residents of the northern Great Plains could argue that storms such as the Great Blizzard of 1993 are relatively common in their regions. To wit: Another storm that could easily vie for the title storm of the century occurred January 10–11, 1975, in the upper Midwest. The blizzard was accompanied by winds of 90 miles per hour and wind chills as low as minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Trains were stranded in snowdrifts, and at least 80 people died. Ranchers and farmers were hard hit, losing some 55,000 head of livestock.


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