Blizzard of the Century


The storm was spotted near the Pacific Coast and tracked cross country. Yet it blew up from the south and took Eastern cities by surprise. A late storm, something of a hurricane, it started March 11 here, and buried the town on March 12. That was in 1888. Until this weekend the Blizzard of [Feb. 11-12] '83 -- just 10 years ago -- was the greatest in memory, but the Blizzard of [March 11-15] '88 -- 105 years ago -- was the greatest in history. And so it remains. The '93 storm cut a wider swath; '88 did more harm. Thank technological advances in forecasting, communications and snow removal over 105 years.

"Baltimore was isolated yesterday from the rest of the world," The Sun reported on March 13, 1888. "So were New York, Washington, Philadelphia and other cities on the Eastern seaboard, and persons in this part of the country experienced some of the effects of a blizzard." That was the first appearance in this newspaper of "blizzard," coined from the German word blitz in Midwestern papers for roaring storms of the Great Plains.

Trains stopped. Telegraph wires came down. Baltimore was alone. So were Philadelphia and New York. Western Union rigged a one-line connection from Baltimore to New York with telegraphers re-tapping the Morse Code at Washington, Hagerstown, Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Financiers here sent stock market orders to New York via undersea cable to London, but the system broke down from overload. The Associated Press correspondent in Washington managed to get a train to Baltimore and deliver dispatches by hand. In New York, 200 bodies were found buried in snow. Food panic set in and the price of milk quintupled. In Baltimore, freak tides drained the Patapsco leaving two steamboats stuck in mud and ice.

With modern communications, the blizzard of 1993 brought not isolation but community. We were in this together and knew about each other. Instead of the Signal Service tracking the storm, the successor Weather Service forecast it with stunning accuracy. The closest parallel to the telegraph breakdown of 1888 was the air service paralysis of 1993: Shutdowns in the Northeast wrecked schedules and service everywhere.

The storm was notable here because BWI, with its stranded multitudes, was the best-functioning airport of the Northeast; because Baltimore City cleared roads far better than Baltimore County; because householders and businesses ignored their obligation to clear sidewalks; because Maryland cleared the highways better than Pennsylvania, and because cooperation, duty, helpfulness, neighborliness and quiet heroism, mostly unsung, manifested themselves in thousands of ways.

The Blizzard of 1888 was a catastrophe. The Blizzard of 1993 was an infernal nuisance. One to be talked about until the Blizzard of the Next Century -- be that 100 years hence or 10.

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