The 10 Worst Winter Storms in U.S. History


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Just about everyone on Facebook and Twitter shared a link to this map on the morning of February 1, as people across the country prepared to batten down the hatches against a sudden onset of winter weather poised to lash out against almost one-third of the nation's population. People joked about the level of online panic, as well, and with good reason: the storms of early 2011 are no different than the ones we see every winter, and they're definitely not enough to rank among the worst we've ever seen. For those with short memories, or for those who just want to get some perspective on how good we've got it right now, here's a rundown of the storms that really rocked the country.

  1. The Great Blizzard of 1888: Even the title is awesome! It instantly calls to mind huge drifts, massive panic, a shortage of supplies and aid, and more. The facts don't disappoint, either. Beginning just after midnight on March 12, 1888, and lasting for 36 hours, the blizzard dropped 50 inches (!) of snow across Massachusetts and Connecticut, with New York and New Jersey taking on 40 inches. People reported 40-foot snow drifts that scaled past the roofs of houses in New York City, and New York's Saratoga Springs saw an insane 58 inches of snow. Coupled with winds that spiked to 80 mph, the storm pretty much shutting down much of the northeastern seaboard and damaging communications and telegraph equipment. Melting snow led to floods, and snowed-in fire departments meant many fires went unchecked. More than 400 people died. Remember that next time the TV weatherman talks about "snowpocalypse."
  2. The Schoolhouse Blizzard: In the annals of weather history, 1888 is one bad year. A few months before the Great Blizzard, Midwestern residents were hit with what would be called the Schoolhouse Blizzard. On January 12, following a few days of light snow, a cold front from the north swept in and led to a sudden drop in temperatures and a major storm that hit during business and school hours, trapping people in schoolhouses and offices across the region. More than 200 people died after trying to navigate through the storm, even though it only deposited half a foot of snow.
  3. Armistice Day Blizzard: So named because it began on November 11 (Armistice Day) of 1940, this storm also struck the Midwest pretty hard. Citizens from Nebraska to Michigan saw major and sudden temperature drops, several feet of snow, winds up to 80 miles an hour, and drifts two stories high. The blizzard killed more than 140 people, including a large group of Minnesotan duck hunters who were caught unaware by the weather change and didn't have the right gear to survive the cold.
  4. The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 (aka The Big Blow): What's more fun than a blizzard? A blizzard with hurricane-level winds that kills 250 people and causes damages equal to $81 million in today's currency, not even counting lost cargo. OK, so that's not exactly "fun," but you get the picture: big storm, huge losses. The storm was the worst natural disaster in Great Lakes history, wrecking almost 20 ships and stranding as many more. Running for a total of five days in November 1913, the Big Blow sent waves crashing out of the lakes at heights of 35 feet, and it battered the shore with 90 mph winds. Twelve of the ships destroyed in the storm have still never been recovered.
  5. The Knickerbocker Storm: Don't let the quaint title throw you: this 1922 storm in Washington, D.C., was one ugly beast, and it remains the biggest snowstorm in the district since records started being kept in 1885. Spurred by a cyclone moving up the coast, the storm started depositing snow on Washington on January 28, 1922, and ran through the 29th. The storm takes its name from the Knickerbocker Theatre, a movie theater that was still new at the time of the storm. The building's flat roof let snow pile up relentlessly, and on the night of the 28th, the roof caved in, burying the patrons. Hundreds of rescue workers and volunteers came to the rescue, but 98 people were dead and more than 100 were injured.
  6. The Storm of the Century: This 1993 storm walked away with the "storm of the century" label because the century was almost over, so despite people's rush to label every successive storm as the worst of the era, there's no way to know until more time has passed. In March 1993, a cyclonic blizzard absolutely worked the east coast, at one point stretching from Canada to Central America as it dropped snow as far south as Alabama and Florida here in the States. More than 300 people died in the storm, which had an impact on almost half the country's population. The storm racked up more than $6.6 billion in damages and even delayed NASCAR events, so you know it was serious.
  7. The Northeastern Blizzard of 1978: The twist that made this storm so painful for residents of the northeastern U.S. was that no one saw it coming. The February morning was a typical one, and the pre-dawn snow that meteorologists had forecast was nowhere in sight, so people went about their daily lives of work and school. As a result, when the storm finally hit, many locals were trapped in their cars along the highway, and it got so bad on I-95 outside Boston that several people died and the rest were evacuated by rescuers on skis and snowmobiles. Close to 10,000 people were temporarily displaced from their homes and put into emergency shelters when their houses were cut off from utilities and basic services.
  8. The Chicago Blizzard of 1967: Breaking open on January 26, 1967, this storm set a record for the 23 inches of snow dropped on Chicago. It snowed for almost 30 hours straight, during which time thousands of cars and city buses were stranded on the streets. The shutdown led to looting, which in turn led to tense shootouts between rioters and law enforcement. More than two dozen residents died from storm-related events, including a 10-year-old girl struck by the crossfire between cops and looters. Major drifts also shuttered O'Hare Airport.
  9. The Blizzard of 1947: Beginning on Christmas Day, 1947, this storm didn't come with the gusty winds typically associated with winter weather. Rather, it just kept snowing, without halt, for an entire day, dropping more than two feet of snow on Manhattan in the process. Subway service stopped; buses and cars were abandoned; trains ran half a day late; and more than 75 people died. The storm did so much damage because it blew in from the Atlantic without warning, and no one saw it coming till it was too late.
  10. The Great Snow of 1717: The Great Snow remains one of the worst storms in U.S. history, not only for its scope but for the effect that major weather could have on the nation before it was developed. A series of snowstorms running from the end of February through the first few days of March that year sent 60 inches of snow down onto New York and surrounding colonies, with drifts up to five times that high. The weather made many roads impassable until the season had passed; folks who wanted to go from New York to Boston were out of luck. Records from the era are spotty in places, but what remains shows that the storm was epic and lethal. No matter how bad it gets out there, it won't be worse than this.
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