Anyone who grew up in the central corridor of the east coast remembers the Blizzard of 1996. Even as a 5 year old I remember running and jumping off the porch into 2.5’ of snow and having to get my dad to pull me out by my arms. It was a dream for any school-aged child, but a detriment to the citizens, government, and economy of the eastern U.S.
The Blizzard of 1996 slammed the northeast corridor for 3 days before it subsided, only to be followed up by smaller storms over the next week. The storm began January 6, 1996 as a low pressure system off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, several other low pressure systems were also forming within an inverted trough system. The system moved east-northeastward until it suddenly changed directions on January 7, 1996 as additional low-pressure systems popped up along the Virginia/North Carolina coast. Initially, the storm had been following a route from the Gulf over Tennessee and into the Northeast. But, very low surface pressures formed over eastern Georgia and Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. This coastal front in combination with the low pressure system heading right for it, turned out to be the perfect combination for an intense blizzard. Once the front reached Cape Hatteras, it hit the moist coastal front and became stagnant. Temperatures to the north of the storm had dropped substantially as artic air moved through the region. Before meeting the coastal front and artic air, forecasters had predicted that it would head out into the Atlantic, and then it changed its path—heading straight towards Washington.
Blizzard of 1996 – Surface Map, January 7, 1996. Courtesy NOAA Central Library Data Imaging Project.
[Because the blizzard caused such a ruckus all along the east coast, Virginia and Maryland will be the focus of this blog post. ]
On January 3, most areas along the east coast were aware that a winter storm was moving towards the area, yet only the southern-most areas of Virginia were placed under a Winter Storm Watch beginning January 5. At this point in the storm’s development, many forecasters and meteorologists were arguing over the potential direction and impacts of the storm. It was unclear where the storm was exactly headed and what areas should be warned of the impending storm. By January 6 the storm-tracking models began to show that the storm was going to be hitting much farther north along the coast than was originally anticipated, and the entire state of Virginia and most of Maryland (though the northern-most parts of Maryland soon joined)was then placed under a Winter Storm Warning. However the January 6 warnings did not stop there, the storm and coastal front were causing winds to rip across the coast, forcing officials to also issue Gale Warnings and Coastal Flood Warnings. A Blizzard Warning went into effect the morning of January 7. The storm hit the southwest region of Virginia less than 24 hours after the issue of the winter warning and spread quickly to the DC area, dropping upwards of 2 feet of snow as it moved into Pennsylvania and New York. On January 8, as the storm continued its move northward and winds began blowing offshore behind the storm, the region was relinquished of all warnings.
Following the storm, NOAA conducted a Service Assessment on the response of emergency officials, media and forecasters in regards to how well they prepared citizens before the blizzard hit the area. According to the report, the National Weather Service Forecast Office had a false alarm rate of 0%, meaning that every area (at least for the Virginia, Maryland and DC region) that was forecasted to be hit by the storm was, indeed, buried by snow. In addition to national forecasts, local governments acted unusually quickly and organized grassroots clean-up crews, hiring locals to man the 300+ snow removal equipment rented by VDOT shortly before the onset of the snow.
VDOT workers already on payroll took the days prior to the storm off to secure shelter and subsidence for their families, allowing them to work long hours once it was time to clean-up after the blizzard. Meteorologists and storm-watchers bunked in their offices to assure that they could keep the public up-to-date on the on-goings of the storm. The report also notes that following the blizzard of 1993, VDOT, the Virginia government and the National Weather Service began working together to prepare for storms such as this which allowed them to better communicate and coordinate needed services.
In the end, the blizzard caused the DC Metropolitan region to shut down for 3 days, including the federal and local governments. With the entirety of the region under at LEAST a foot of snow, airports and metros were at a standstill for almost a week. Most businesses including many flat-topped grocery and retail stores had to close until the snow was cleared from their rooftops for fear that the roof may collapse in on customers. This had a huge negative impact on the economy, as businesses in the area were already suffering from loss in sales.
In total, 18 people died in Virginia during the storm, 3 from hypothermia, 1 from a tree falling atop his car, and 10 from heart attacks while shoveling snow. Maryland saw 13 death from snow shoveling and 1 from a metro accident due to snowy conditions.
Following the blizzard, the region experienced smaller snow-storms which made clean-up difficult. Winds carrying the snow would blow 5-8 foot drifts into road ways and yards. The additional weight of the snow caused more collapsed roofs and damaged to properties.
The Weather Channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_neYIGPCvA
Philadelphia news stations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xd-hh0ICIBA — (if you don’t watch this video at least check out 1:28 minutes into it, those gas prices!)
Someone’s home video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XP1phnSiBAI
Another Weather Channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79isaqdT_4Q