United States’ Two Deadliest Blizzards Came Just Two Months Apart
As a gigantic winter storm pummels the United States, we look back at two blizzards that resulted in a major change involving the National Weather Service. Two of the worst in American history, they happened just two months apart.
On Thursday, January 12, 1888, a winter storm arrived with no warning. What it would leave in its wake, is both unthinkable and heartbreaking.
According to History, after an unusually warm Wednesday, Artic cold plunged through the Midwest. Strong winds and heavy snow also accompanied a huge drop in temperatures. A blizzard.
The storm that had raced nearly 800 miles in less than 18 hours caught the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa by surprise. In North Dakota, the temperature plummeted to nearly 40 below zero. In Iowa, where the temperature dropped more than 50 degrees during the day, thankfully the storm hit when children had already gotten home from school.
In other states, like Nebraska, the storm came in the afternoon, as school days were ending. Hitting almost without warning, the outcomes were horrific in places where teachers didn't keep children inside one-room schoolhouses. The blizzard claimed the lives of many children who passed away on their way home from school. In some cases, their parents were also lost... trying to rescue them.
The approximate death toll from what would become known as "The Children's Blizzard" or "Schoolchildren's Blizzard" was 235. Most of those lost were kids. It is believed to be the second deadliest blizzard in U.S. history. Second only to the one that would come less than two months later. We'll detail that storm later in this story.
In the 2004 book "The Children's Blizzard," David Laskin wrote "undoubtedly many deaths were never reported from remote outlying districts... Scores died in the weeks after the storm of pneumonia and infections contracted during amputations." Most of the amputations were the result of frostbite sustained in the storm.
Just under two months later, another blizzard would hit the United States. This one would be the deadliest in U.S. history.
March 11, 1888, was when "The Great Blizzard of 1888" began to hit the northeastern U.S. Snow would fall for two days, leaving up to five feet (60 inches) behind in parts of New York State. In New York City, sustained winds were clocked at 50 miles per hour and snow drifts in the city were measured up to 20 feet.
The New York City elevated rail line was overwhelmed by the storm with several members of one train killed when it derailed. Off the coast, ships were lost due to conditions that included 90 mph winds.
Approximately 400 people were killed by "The Great Blizzard of 1888", the most by any winter storm in the history of the United States. About half of those who died perished in New York City.
Weather Underground says, "No storm of similar magnitude has occurred anywhere in the contiguous United States since." After the storm, New York City began planning for a subway system.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "The failure of the Signal Service to issue a "Cold Wave Warning" for these two calamitous blizzards became a motivating factor for moving the meteorological service out of the War Department so as to improve forecasting and preparedness efforts. Two years later, the legislation creating the Weather Bureau under the Dept. of Agriculture was signed by President Benjamin Harrison on October 1, 1890."
In 1970, the National Weather Service says "the Weather Bureau name was changed to the National Weather Service, although its primary function of public service remained the same. The National Weather Service is one of the main components of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)"