Two lines are missing from an article about Washington's worst winters in today's Washington Post Magazine. The part of the story referring to a National Weather Service forecast for this winter should read: There is about a 40 percent chance that the next two months will be much colder than normal. Over the past 21 years, the Weather Service's long-range forecasting claims to have been right about three-fourths of the time.
Unless you were alive and sober in the awesome Washington winter of 1898-99, you ain't seen beans.
More than four feet of snow fell in Washington that winter, the worst since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1870. The temperature dropped to 15 degrees below zero. In one three-day stretch in February, more than 20 inches of snow swirled down during a blizzard in which the wind blew at 40 miles an hour and the thermometer hovered near zero. No winter since has approached such awfulness.
Across the country, snow and cold killed hundreds of people that winter. More than 60,000 sheep died in subzero southern Colorado. In New Orleans, the Mississippi River froze from bank to bank. And in Washington, ice on the Potomac River was four inches thick. The clock in the Old Post Office building stopped ticking--frozen solid.
Just as they are now, snow-bound Washingtonians were lousy drivers that winter. A coasting sled, carrying eight young men and one young woman, smashed into the rear of a streetcar on P Street NW, killing one man and injuring six. The Washington Post on Feb. 7, 1899, reported that even walking was dangerous: "There were many accidents to pedestrians and horses yesterday. Hundreds of people fell, with considerable pain as a result, and an unusual number received injuries which required surgical attention."
Snow banks were six feet deep. Trains ran two or three days late. Navigation on the Potomac stopped because of ice. "As a result of the ice blockade," The Post reported on Feb. 13, "an oyster famine is imminent in Washington. The last schooner to bring a load of the succulent bivalves to town arrived (a week ago)."
Succulent bivalve shortages aside, the winter of '99 brought real suffering to Washington. "Only millionaires are comfortable," said a Post editorial. "Only the very rich can go home to warmth and safety. Out of the 275,000 people now composing our population, it is within bounds to say that less than 25,000 of them have passed through this episode without sorrow and discomfort. What then, must be the wretchedness and the misery of the multitude?"
Washington lies at a meteorologically fickle latitude and geographical position. It has been 84 degrees in February here, as well as 15 below zero. One 1922 storm dumped 25 inches of snow on the city in 24 hours, but over the last 111 years only six winters mustered more than 40 inches of snow. Climatologist Helmut Landsberg, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and a veteran of 28 winters here, says Washington teeters between the forces of the Canadian tundra and the Gulf of Mexico. Winters here are neither northern nor southern.
"In this area you don't have uniform winters. We are just on the border of varied air masses--cold, dry air from Canada, warm wet air from the Gulf. The big snows happen here when storms come in from off the Atlantic and collide with cold air from Canada," says Landsberg.
Crippling snows--such as the February 1979 storm that dumped nearly 19 inches in 24 hours and paralyzed the city for a day--do sneak up on Washington. The National Weather Service underestimated the 1979 snowfall by about 12 inches. The storm, like nearly every big snow in the city's history, began as a small area of low pressure that meteorologists figured would head out to sea near Cape Hatteras, N.C. Instead, it turned north, smashed into cold Canadian air and became Washington's greatest snowstorm in half a century. The snow shut down Metro subways for three days, triggered looting in Prince George's County and cost local merchants an estimated $50 million in George Washington's Birthday sales.
"Those are the ones that drive you crazy," says Bob Ryan, weatherman for WRC-TV and a meteorologist. "All of a sudden you can find a storm that looks as though it would not be large, but then just explodes off the coast."
The trickiest part of weather forecasting in Washington is guessing whether a storm will dump rain or snow. Because Washington vacillates between freeze and thaw during much of January and February, goofs are common. "A miscalculation on the location of the dividing line between rain and snow could be the difference between an inch of rain and 10 inches of snow," says Alan Robock, a meteorology professor at the University of Maryland.
Washington has become something of a national joke for puny storms and panicked drivers. Snow fever frequently breaks out here after a few flakes fall:
Ten-minute commutes become three-hour ordeals. Cars fishtail, crunch into each other, stall, spin their wheels and run out of gas. Drivers curse each other and abandon their automobiles. Potomac River bridges become car-strangled spanners. Schools close. High government officials demand investigations into why the capital of the free world can't plow snow faster. Some crusty, transplanted Vermonter fires off a letter to the newspaper castigating local drivers for being inept. In a couple of days, snow melts, traffic flows and the fever subsides.
The cause of all this hoo-ha is usually a snowfall that would hardly occasion comment in Boston.
But jokes about lousy Washington drivers are unfair. Snow in Washington, according to chemists, is slipperier and more hazardous for driving than the snow in Boston or Buffalo or Minneapolis. Unlike those northern cities, snow in Washington usually falls when the temperature is hovering around the freezing point of water. Snowflakes at that temperature, according to Georgetown University chemist Charles Hammer, are soft, with a film of water between the ice crystals of each flake. "That water is a marvelous lubricant," says Hammer. In a frigid city like Minneapolis, where Hammer got his Ph.D., the chemist says, "There is no water at all between the snow crystals and when they rub together it is like grains of sand. I could ride my bike in Minneapolis in that grainy snow until it got 10 inches deep. It wasn't slippery at all."
Washingtonians, confronted with intractable, slippery snows, are a surly lot, says weatherman Ryan, who has worked in Boston and in New York for NBC's "Today" show. "People here resent the weather. Anything that interferes with what the movers and shakers want to do is seen as a bother. In the Midwest, rain and big storms are looked on as beneficial for the farmers. Here, people say, 'Oh no, this is going to ruin my day.'"
A look backwards at Washington's worst winters in the last century indicates that the city's current penchant for discombobulation in the face of snowflakes flows out of a long, ridiculously predictable and sometimes tragic tradition.
In the greatest snowstorm since the National Weather Service started keeping records, a blizzard swept in from the Carolina capes and dropped 25 inches of snow in Washington on Feb. 27 and 28, 1922. Predictably, it brought the city to a standstill. Not so predictably, it killed 96 people and injured 133 others. The roof of the Knickerbocker Theater at 18th and Columbia Road NW collapsed under the weight of the snow. It became known as the Knickerbocker disaster, the worst catastrophe in the history of Washington.
The second audience on a Saturday night had just settled into the movie theater for a showing of George M. Cohan's "Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford," a light- hearted comedy. Then at 9:10 p.m., according to The Post, "with a roar, mighty as the crack of doom, the massive roof of the Knickerbocker broke loose from its and crashed down upon the heads of those in the balcony. Under the weight of the fallen roof, the balcony gave way. Most of the audience was entombed. It was as sudden as the turning off of an electric light."
Beneath the debris and the waist-high snowdrifts inside the theater, men, women and children--many of them horribly mangled by the falling roof-- moaned and screamed for help. Gen. John J. (Black Jack) Pershing dispatched cavalry and field artillery troops from Fort Myer to the theater. A nearby candy store was converted into a hospital. Hearing news of the disaster, relatives of the dead and dying fought their way through drifting snow and pleaded for access to the rubble.
"A man came to the entrance, willing to fight his way in if necessary," The Post wrote. "He was the husband of a young bride who, with a girl friend, had attended the theater. 'You can't hold me back,' he cried. 'I've got to get in there. Mary's there, and she wants me with her.' It took three policemen to hold him back."
For two days, soldiers and police dug and pried bodies out of the theater. Meantime, roofs of 10 other houses collapsed. More than 300 men were hired to shovel out downtown intersections.
The storm gave rise to a theory that 25- inch-plus snows assault Washington every 150 years. Exactly 150 years before the Knickerbocker disaster, on Jan. 27, 1772, three feet of snow fell in the Washington area, according to weather records kept by George Washington at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. If the 150-year theory holds--in a city that normally gets 16.9 inches of snow during an entire winter--then Washington is due for another catastrophe on Jan. 27, 2072.
Before 1870, the year that the weather service began keeping careful records, information on Washington's winters is spotty, at best. The year 1816 reportedly was one continuous winter. Jefferson wrote: "We have had the most extraordinary year of drought and cold ever known in the history of America." Weather records kept in Luray, Va. (which weather experts are inclined to doubt) note that the town put off building a foot bridge across a creek because one could walk across it all summer long on ice.
One measure of the precision of pre- 1870 weather records in Washington is this notation on an otherwise blank page in the Naval Observatory weather log for Sept. 24, 1848: "Observer indisposed and chilly."
The biggest, most destructive early winter storm to hit Washing ton came on Dec. 17 and 18, 1932. It dropped a foot of snow and helped establish what has become a time-honored tradition among Washington drivers-- ditching their cars when the going gets rough. "The snow left hundreds of abandoned automobiles in its wake," The Post reported. "These were seen in clusters near the hilly streets which they were unable to surmount."
The fine art of abandoning one's automobile in dicey weather reached its zenith during a Monday rush hour nearly three years ago. That bleak night of Feb. 12, 1979, with just 5.6 inches of perfectly ill- timed rush-hour snow, resulted in the 10- hour commute. Abandoned cars clogged bridges, on-ramps, major intersections. Snow removal equipment could not penetrate traffic jams to clear away snow. Instant entrepreneurs capitalized on a captive market: A man in a jogging suit sold Hennessey brandy at $2 a shot to stalled commuters on K Street. Georgetown University students sold beer at 50 cents a cup to drivers stuck on Key Bridge. A woman held a sign up in front of her house on M Street NW that said: "Fifty cents for bathroom ... 50 cents for a phone call to let your loved ones know you're safe."
Shortly after The Night of the Longest Commute, Douglas S. Blaufarb, an incredulous victim of the big stall, wrote The Post and accused his fellow commuters of "behaving like hysterical sheep."
Back in '32, during the big December snow, the news wasn't sheep, but one lonely, hungry horse out on Analoston Island (subsequently renamed Roosevelt Island). The horse's owner, Robert Scott, a 40-year-old river man, launched a rowboat into the stormy Potomac to go out to feed it. A crowd gafthered on Key Bridge to watch Scott flounder around in the whirling snow and stiff river current. Finally, harbor police rescued him and towed his rowboat to the island. Scott fed his horse.
The third greatest Washington snowstorm in the past 111 years occurred twice: Exactly 14.4 inches fell during 24-hour periods in February 1936 and in February 1958. Both times, as might be expected, Washington panicked, shivered and shut down.
In 1936, a Maryland State policeman died on the frozen-over Chesapeake Bay of exposure in an attempt to bring food to ice-bound residents of Smith Island. In the city, where 4,000 men were put to work shoveling and plowing streets, the Senate recessed when the few hearty senators who showed up at the Capitol found the roof of their chamber leaking.
A Post reporter, Howard F. Wentworth, took his car out on the streets of Washington shortly after the snow and attempted to find out why Washington drivers can be so nasty. Wentworth found himself stalled in traffic at Thomas Circle. As he described it, "the air was suddenly filled with tooting horns." Wentworth stuck his head out his car window and asked the driver behind him the "reason why of his repeated blowing."
The horn blower, described as "a big fellow," retorted: "Oh, smart guy. Well, suppose you get out and come over here and find out." Wentworth did not pursue the story.
The big snow of 1958--an extraordinarily slippery affair which fell on a layer of ice--forced city officials to issue a "stay put" order. The stay-put weather stranded 1,000 Saturday-night patrons at Bowie race track, cancelled a lavish party at the Turkish Embassy (where the hired help ate imported caviar) and prevented a wedding party from leaving the Ascension Catholic Church in Bowie. Five-foot drifts blocked the church's door, forcing the bride and groom to spend their wedding night sitting on folding chairs in the church. The snow made many surly. Delores F. Swan was charged by D.C. police with assault. Police said she kicked a policeman in the shins and rolled her car window up on his hands after he chided her for parking on the sidewalk.
Washington becomes particularly vulnerable to its fickle winters during the city's quadrennial inaugural hoopla--that celebratory season when tens of thousands of out-of-towners and their limousines barge into town for ritual blather over invitation lists and the First Lady's new shoes. In this century, crippling snows have befouled two inaugurations. In 1909, nearly 10 inches of snow greeted President-elect William Howard Taft on his inaugural day. Before the afternoon's inaugural parade, the city marshaled 6,000 men and 500 wagons to clear 58,500 tons of snow from the parade route. Apparently annoyed that a mundane matter like the weather could interfere with the installation of an American president, The Post described the snow as "reprehensible and extremely disagreeable slush, which was found to be unusually moist upon examination."
Taft, the most obese of American presidents, a man who weighed more than 300 pounds and enjoyed a good supper, chose to characterize the snow in terms of food. Taft reportedly told outgoing President Theodore Roosevelt, "The slush looks like lemon ice."
The winter of 1961, the sixth snowiest on record, had the temerity to trifle with Camelot, dropping nearly eight inches of snow on the eve of the swearing in of John F. Kenneday. The inaugural eve rush hour produced what at the time was called the worst traffic jam in the city's history. Fur-clad inaugural guests riding in limousines were locked in traffic for up to six hours along with all nine of the city's ambulances, scores of police cars and the cars of many soon-to-be-powerful personages. George Ball, who became an undersecretary of state for Kennedy, was stuck in the Dupont Circle underpass for two hours before he abandoned his car and walked to an inaugural event.
With just 12 hours to clear a parade route for the inauguration, the wd gafcity called in 500 Army troops from Fort Belvoir, rounded up 30 cranes to move more than 1,500 abandoned cars and dispatched 700 vehicles to shove snow off Pennsylvania Avenue. It worked; 1 million spectators managed to watch the parade in person.
This winter in Washington, depending on which prognosticator one chooses to believe, will be cold and stormy, warm and dry or drearily average. The National Weather Service says the winter, beginning in January, will be colder than normal, with storms and sudden cold snaps. There is about a 40 percent chance that the next two months will be memorably cold, says the Weather Service, which in 21 years of long-range forecaster claims to have been right about three-fourths of the time. Among other weather forecasters there seems to be some agreement that this winter won't be too bad. Gordon Barnes, WDVM-TV weatherman and a forecasting consultant, says the winter will be slightly colder than normal with about normal precepitation. Bob Ryan, at WRC, says the winter should offer near- normal temperatures, but will be considerably snowier than last year. Irving P. Krick, internationally known private meteorological consultant in Palm Springs, Calif., says this winter will be both warmer and drier than normal.
Since Kennedy's inauguration, there have been two truly rotten winters. In 1966, two blizzards covered Washington with its deepest snow blanket in 44 years. A 12-year-old girl froze to death on the Beltway in her parents' snow-buried car. And two winters ago, the city had more snow than in any of the previous 21 winters (37.7 inches). Art Buchwald was moved in 1979 to write two columns explaining why snow in Washington is different from snow anywhere else. He offered an insight supported by Washington's 111-year record of snow-bound bumbling: "It so happens that since we're the capital of the United States we consider ourselves immune from snow and therefore are not prepared for it."