So far, the Storm of '88 isn't living up to its namesake, the Great Blizzard of '88 -- a century ago.
Now there was a storm. It hit the whole Northeast, but mostly it hit New York City, bringing 20.9 inches of snow, temperatures 4 below zero and 84 mph winds over four days in March.
Maybe that doesn't sound so bad. But wait.
Winds howling in from the northwest gusted at 100 mph, knocking over people, trees and telephone poles by the hundreds. "The snow came so fast," reads one account, "that five minutes sufficed to obliterate the footprints of a man or horse in the streets."
Enormous drifts, 10 feet or more, piled up everywhere. Herald Square was buried in 30 feet of snow. People climbed into their houses by the second-story windows. Trains, horsecars and carriages were out of the question. The only way to get around was by sleigh.
The telegraph wires went down, cutting off the city from any contact with the outside. New York was in the process of putting power lines underground, but there were still thousands of the unwieldy poles with a dozen or more crosspieces and many hundreds of wires, shapes that actually darkened the sky, it was said.
When these were blown over in windrows down several blocks, the vast tangle of spitting, dangerous live wires blocked the streets even to pedestrians.
Coal couldn't be delivered. Food ran scarce. A milk panic arose. People began to die -- 400 of them at the last count.
One of these was Roscoe Conkling, New York's top Republican leader and a former U.S. senator. An outdoorsman, he walked from Wall Street to his club at 25th Street, struggling against hurricane winds and once fighting his way out of a snowbank that buried him to his neck. It took him four hours to walk the two miles.
"It's death out there," he said after collapsing in the club lobby. "People are dying everywhere ... I saw bodies sticking from the snow." He himself died a month later from that exposure.
The poor suffered the most. If a building caught fire, it burned to the ground, for fire engines couldn't get to it. When a tenement on West 43rd burned, 20 families had to run for their lives in their night clothes. They were sheltered in nearby saloons.
Those who were not marooned in their homes were marooned on the road. All over the Northeast, trains lay paralyzed amid the drifts, and passengers huddled for hours and days without heat or food, or fought through the open fields to the nearest farmhouse. Winds were so fierce that a single sleigh with one passenger took 10 hours to go 10 miles cross-country.
In Washington -- where the storm started Sunday the 11th as a heavy rain, turned to snow that evening, blew a gale by nightfall -- things were not quite as sensational. But a train that had left New York Sunday at 7 p.m. steamed into Union Station at exactly 5:20 p.m. Monday.
The capital was shut down for three days. Trees were uprooted in Lafayette Park. Several blocks downtown were impassable because of fallen trees and scores of power poles with their broken yards and mazes of wire.
"The only signs of life were the streetcars moving slowly and noiselessly along, their passengers consisting merely of the driver and conductor," said The Washington Post, which also noted helpfully that "fires, murders, riots or any species of disturbance might have taken place" with the wires down and police and firemen snowed in.
Back in New York, 2,000 immigrants were kept on their ships in the harbor until the 14th, the storm's fourth day, when they were landed at Castle Garden (this was before Ellis Island). They came from France, Holland, Germany.
Brooklyn and New Jersey could be reached on foot, for the East and Hudson rivers were frozen over. But many who got to work in Manhattan spent the night in the city. Hotels were packed; refugees slept in stores and offices; business places were turned into dormitories.
At the Astor House, 400 were turned away at the desk as early as 5 p.m. of the storm's first day. The lucky ones were given beds in the corridors.
By the second day, there were reports of people missing after they had tried to walk home. Their frozen bodies would not be uncovered for days. At one police station, 58 people showed up to ask about missing friends and children. In Brooklyn, nine families resigned themselves to a freezing death when their tenement roof blew off.
And as the storm went on and on, shortages grew worse. "It is almost impossible to get anything but condensed milk," reads a delayed report from New York in The Washington Post of March 15. "One hotel yesterday paid 50 cents a quart for the last 50 gallons a dealer had. The meat supply is getting short, and prices are advancing, $15 per ton being paid for coal."
This was the era of the nickel lunch, remember. Horse cabbies were getting $30 and $40 for a short ride, which would probably translate to hundreds today.
Trainloads of passengers from Rockaway, Long Island, were stranded, finally reaching the city after 48 hours. Twenty funerals heading for a Long Island cemetery bogged down in snow drifts, and "the corpses had to be taken into houses nearby overnight."
The stores closed. A record low of 15,000 shares were traded on the stock market before it shut down, and at the Produce Exchange, 95 of the 1,700 members showed up.
Fishing boats, schooners, tugs and ferries capsized or were driven onto the land by the shrieking winds. One crew left a sinking tug in Long Island Sound, but their lifeboat overturned. One man made it to shore. Ice had to be chipped from his legs.
The ice bridge over the East River broke on March 13, drowning dozens of foot commuters. But at last, on Wednesday the 14th, the wind subsided and the snow stopped and began to melt in the sun. By Friday, "the cross-town cars were running, and some of the snow heaps were not more than 5 1/2 feet high."
Someone took the trouble to look up the weather prediction in the papers for the previous Sunday. It was for "flurries."