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
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
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
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."