Could it happen again? A blizzard like no other. Have we learned anything at all?
The summer and autumn of 1948 brought wonderful weather and abundant crops to farmers and backyard gardeners alike. The harvest lasted well into the fall, as the weather continued to be sunny and beautiful. Nobody expected a harsh winter, much less blizzards throughout the next few months.
In November of 1948, a series of storms began moving into the north central United States from Canada. Across Wyoming, the Dakotas, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas, snow fell and winds rose until the entire area was covered with hard packed drifts. After a smaller storm in late December, a warm spell gave no indication of what was to come.
On the New Year, the blizzards known as the Blizzard of '49, began in earnest. It wasn't one blizzard, but a series of blizzards and bad winter weather that continued into February or April, according to some. The first one, on January 1 or 2, depending on location, was the major blizzard that lasted several days and caught people off guard.
Radio station KOA in Denver, Colorado, a powerful station that covered many states, predicted a mild day with the possibility of a few snowflakes. Starting out sunny and warm, the day lured many away from home to enjoy the weather, and by the end of the day in some places and on the second day in other places, snow had begun to fall. As the storm progressed, the wind arose and became stronger with speeds registered up to 80 miles an hour. In some places the temperature dropped to minus 50 degrees.
People were stranded at airports, at train stations, at restaurants and in their cars - wherever they happened to be when the storm started. Food began to run low and the few who could make it to a grocery store were disappointed to see empty shelves. No truck or train could get through to bring new supplies of food or anything else.
If a farmer had put up hay or other feed for cattle and other animals, he couldn't find it, much less feed it out. The wind blew continually, making visibility only a few feet. No one who was in a house or other building could venture outside farther than they could see, or without a guide rope.
As storm after storm attacked the area, airplanes, both military and private, flew in emergency food and supplies for people and animals.
Although gas lines were unaffected, in many areas electricity needed to operate furnace fans was off. Woodsheds disappeared in the driven snow and it was dangerous to try to find them to replenish the supply for wood stoves. Hungry people huddled together in dangerously cold temperatures to wait out the storms.
Over a million cattle and sheep died, many weakened from lack of food and with nostrils covered over with ice. No longer able to breathe, they suffocated and their bodies were frozen in position. A family huddled together had frozen to death in their car, not a mile from home and safety. Another family tried to walk to their home from a stranded car and were found frozen; the husband shielding his son, the wife shielding her daughter, a hundred feet apart.
All in all, around a hundred people died in the blizzards. As the storms spun south, they kicked up tornadoes and wild weather for the warmer climates of Louisana and Missouri.
Could it happen again? Oh, yes. Will we be better prepared? No. Maybe not even as well prepared. Grocery stores work on a "just in time" basis so they don't have to store large amounts of food. People tend to run to the store more often and have less food at home. We are a more mobile culture than we were then, so more people will probably be away from home or shelter.
The Blizzard of '49 should be a reminder that disasters happen to everyone - even you.