The Great Storm

By now, I’m sure we’ve all heard way more than we ever wanted to about the “Superbowl Blizzard” recently experienced by the East Coast. Oh, it goes by other names: The Groundhog Blizzard, Snowpocalypse, even Snowmageddon. Trust a newswriter to feel the need to hype up an already big event by giving it a catchy nickname.
Yes, the storm was bad, the worst winter storm in years. And it isn’t over yet: a nor’easter is expected to blow through today and tomorrow, possibly dumping another foot of snow on us.
But from a historical perspective, we got off easy. Take the famous Blizzard of 1888. This legendary storm (actually a combination of two powerful weather systems) struck the US from the mid-Atlantic up into New England March 11-14 and took scores of lives.
In 1888, there was very little in the way of advance warning for severe weather. The Army Signal Corps, then in charge of collecting and analyzing weather data, was surprised by the storm’s intensity, and the fact that, after it appeared to have moved on, it abruptly made a turn and struck the same area once again. 21 inches of snow fell in New York City. This is well below the thirty-plus inches reported in some areas near Washington, D.C. during our recent storm, but coupled with hurricane-force winds and rapidly falling temperatures, it was far more dangerous.
In 1885, a law had been passed in NYC requiring that all telephone, telegraph and electrical lines be placed underground. But by 1888, not one company had complied with that law. The winds snapped poles like twigs and live wires came tumbling into the streets, and the danger of electrocution became all too real for man and horse alike.
One of the amazing things about the Great Blizzard is the sheer numbers of people who braved the furious winds, thick-falling snow and bitter cold to attempt to go to work or school. Their actions, reckless by today’s standards, are more understandable when we remember that back then, workers had very little protection if they missed work, and could be fired for not showing up, no matter how good their reason was. And 1888 was a difficult year economically, so people lucky enough to have a job had every intention of keeping it, come what may.
Anyway, even if the phone and telegraph wires hadn’t been brought down, few ordinary citizens had access to that technology, so there was no way for an employer or school to notify anyone not to come in to work or school.
There are countless stories of tragedy to come from the Great Blizzard. Sara Wilson, 17, was taking a train from Buffalo to NYC when the train struck a wall of snow on the track and became stuck fast. The train managed to stay upright, but the small stoves used to heat the passenger cars overturned and started a fire. The passengers disembarked and began walking along the tracks toward Albany a short distance away. Sara tried hard to keep up with her fellow passengers and was even carried part of the way by some of the men. But gradually she grew weaker and fell farther behind the others, eventually freezing to death and being covered by the falling snow.
Several boats blew wildly about the harbor at Lewes, Delaware, taking out a 200-foot section of the pier. Nine pilot boats were wrecked, their crews lost forever.
Sam Randall, a vigorous man in his early seventies, doggedly set out to see to the needs of the livestock on his Long Island farm. His barn was not far from his house, but the strain of plowing through the deep snowdrifts and fighting the wind overcame him, and he collapsed and died before he was halfway to the barn.
But there were also stories of great courage and survival. May Morrow, an 18-year-old secretary, was the only person (besides her boss) who showed up at her workplace. Her boss urged her to stay the night in the office rather than try to take the long walk back to her boarding-house. May did consider staying overnight at work, but was made nervous and lonely by the dark and silence of the empty building and resolved to go home. It took her hours, stopping frequently to cling to light-poles and anything else still standing, picking her way around the downed wires, and scrambling over drifts and mounds of debris taller than herself. Her ears nearly froze. But she did make it home, and two days later was back at work, right on time.
James Marshall, 17, and two friends worked at the Singer Sewing Machine factory in New York. They commuted to and from their homes in New Jersey via a small rowboat they jointly owned. The boys made it to work without incident, though the water was rough and the wind and snow chilled them through. But they ran into trouble on their return journey. The boat almost capsized and everyone’s clothes were soaked and frozen. The boat was blown off course and landed about two miles from its usual landing spot. James Marshall helped his two semi-conscious friends from the boat and into a field, where he found a haystack and pushed them inside, covering them with hay. James himself stayed in the open, running, walking and finally crawling around and around the haystack to stay alive. He was found after nearly two days, still crawling around the haystack in which his two friends had perished. James Marshall would survive, though his hands and feet had to be amputated.
The Blizzard of 1888 was a turning point in American history, and because of it, changes were instituted that remain with us to this day. For one thing, the previously-ignored law about underground wires was now accepted to be a valid safety measure. The nation’s capital was first to put its lines underground, since during the storm President Cleveland had been completely cut off from the rest of the nation, and the lack of communication posed a serious security risk.
Up to that time, cities had no plans in place to deal with weather or other emergencies, and they made no provisions for snow removal and cleanup. But after the Great Blizzard, even small towns implemented disaster plans, and today, every major US city (except Detroit; why is that?) takes responsibility for clearing snow and debris from its streets.
Weather forecasting has obviously improved by leaps and bounds over the last 122 years. We can now monitor the weather anywhere in the world 24/7, and we are informed well in advance if severe weather is approaching, thus giving us time to prepare.
But Mark Twain’s remark that “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it” is as true today as it was when it was first uttered. For all our advance warning, we still cannot control the weather. We can only control how prepared we are when it arrives. Mother Nature will not be tamed.


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