Ice Storm 1998New York, February 9, 1999 — One hundred years ago this week an arctic blast froze two-thirds of the nation, setting records that stand today. A blizzard paralyzed the Eastern Seaboard and for only the second time in recorded history, the Mississippi River brought ice to the Gulf of Mexico.

"It was the mother of all cold waves," said National Weather Service meteorologist Ken Batty, who researched the centennial event. "The Great Storm locked the East in its cold embrace, worst in country's history," Batty said, quoting a newspaper account of the time. "Loss of lives, livestock, and crops was enormous."

In Washington, D.C., the temperature bottomed out at 15 degrees F below zero on Feb. 11, the coldest temperature ever recorded in the Capitol. Nearby at Quantico, Va., the thermometer hit 20 below. That night, a powerful nor'easter began its journey up the East Coast and before it was over, deposited more than three feet of snow through Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City and New England. The Chesapeake region and the Potomac valley were the hardest hit with drifts up to 10 feet.

"A century later, such a cold snap would find forecasters far better prepared," said National Weather Service Director John J. Kelly Jr. "With our network of automated weather observing systems, Doppler radar, satellites, and advanced computer and communications equipment, no one would be taken by surprise. Significant winter storms such as the New Year's storm in the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic ice storm last month were forecast well in advance, giving the public ample time to take precautions and be safe."

In Florida, the centennial cold snap brought snow flurries as far south as Fort Myers, with Lake City receiving three inches. Cold swept across the state behind the storm and Tallahassee still holds the state record of 2 below zero on Feb. 13. Freezing temperatures occurred all the way to Miami, which posted a low of 29 degrees on Valentine's Day.

For three days, there was sleigh riding in Montgomery, Ala. In Georgia, the northern part of the state hit 12 below zero, while the southern portion fell to zero. New Orleans saw a low of 7 degrees.

In Chicago, the absence of snow on the ground enabled the freeze to penetrate up to five feet, causing great damage to water, gas and service pipes. On Lake Michigan, tugs were frozen out of port for four days.

The Parkersburg, W.V., Sentinel noted for the state's eastern panhandle: "Last Saturday evening a heavy snow, accompanied with high wind, set in at this place and it has been snowing continuously since. The snow is now three feet deep on the level. It is the deepest snow ever known here, within the memory of the oldest citizen."

At Swift Current, Saskatchewan, the arctic high pressure reached 31.42 inches on the barometer, Batty said, the highest ever recorded up to that time. "From a sparse network of reporting stations, the coldest temperature measured was 61 degrees below zero in Logan, Mont. Even after 100 years and a denser network of observation stations, the cold wave brought the coldest day on record for Ohio, Louisiana, Nebraska, Florida, and Washington D.C.," the meteorologist said.

Single day records set during the 1899 cold wave that stand today include:

Pittsburgh, Pa. -20 degrees on Feb. 10
Cleveland, Ohio -16 degrees on Feb. 10
Erie, Pa. -12 degrees on Feb. 10
Charlotte, N.C. -5 degrees on Feb. 14

Accompanying the great freeze were numerous floods caused by ice jams on the Ohio, James, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers and many streams and tributaries. There was ice, either floating or solid, throughout the entire Mississippi watershed, which was frozen south to Cairo. On Feb. 17, ice reached New Orleans and was passed out into the Gulf of Mexico two days later.

Despite all the changes in the past 100 years, some things do stay the same, as highlighted by the West Virginia Daily Oil Review. "The plumber is the most popular man in town today, and for once the individual who is lucky enough to secure his services does not object to his bill. The price for coal, for home heating, started to climb from $1.50 a ton to $2.00 a ton during the cold wave, but the week-long onslaught was not long enough for coal shortages to develop."

After Valentine's Day, temperatures began to moderate. "From my research, overall, the citizens seemed to take the extreme conditions in stride," Batty continued. "There were even good results."

For example, an Albany, N.Y., newspaper wrote about the local ice business: "All was cut that could be handled, and the crop was unexcelled both as to quality and quantity."
In South Carolina, "The yellow fever...slained by the cold." And when temperatures moderated, a paper in the Ohio Valley reported, "Many citizens getting out their sleighs and the sounds of merry jingle bells could be heard."


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