I am installing a new solid state drive in my aging slow computer and in preparation I have been going through old archives and deleting stuff. I came across this piece I wrote back in April 1997, the year of the great flood of the Red River. Before the flood a huge blizzard, a monster Colorado Low broke all previous records for heavy snowfall and contributed greatly to the Flood of the Century. Grand Forks North Dakota flooded that year and then the downtown burned to the core and much of Fargo North Dakota was flooded as well. Winnipeg escaped flooding but it was perilously close. Here are my journal notes about the great blizzard of 1997.
The 1997 Blizzard of the Century
April 5th marked the beginning of the arrival of the blizzard of the century. By the time this one was over we had broken many of the old records. Most snowfall for a blizzard (43.8 cm of water in total equaling much more in terms of actual snowfall. ) Longest period of zero visibility at the Winnipeg International Airport (24.8 hours). Highest recorded wind velocity for a period with snowfall since 1965. Environment Canada warnings went out Friday and having lived through enough of these, when I heard the term “Colorado low” I knew we were in for it. When a “clipper” blizzard comes from Alberta it’s fast windy and over in a few hours. When one of those monster lows comes up from the US, well when Uncle Sam sneezes… as they say. On the way home I stopped off for extra milk and bread and checked my stock of Yarzeit and shabbot candles which can double very nicely for emergency heat in a power outage. I also made sure I had plenty of work to do bringing home stacks of books from the lab.
Normally we leave the car parked in the back alley but I put it into the garage. My eldest, Justin, 15 years old, passed me on the way. There’s a blizzard coming I shouted after him. Better dress warm or stay home. Yeah yeah, he replied.
The first forecasts were for the blizzard to hit Saturday morning. But a Colorado low is renowned for slow movement so we postponed a decision to skip shul until morning. We awoke to freezing rain which turned to tiny round pellets as we walked to shul. The wind was strong enough to make Main street (which is open to the bald prairie) a dangerous wind tunnel fit for astronaut training or jet engine testing. Walking up Main street against the ice pellets was out of the question so we took back alleys. It wasn’t cold though, so except for ice pellets in the face if we looked up, it was fine.
By the time we left shul the temperature had dropped and the cold cut through our warmest winter clothing. We watched the rain slowly turn to snow as the day progressed. By suppertime it was all snow and the freezing rain had stopped. Reports began coming in of highways being impassable. The R.C.M.P. were recommending no travel. Alan, twelve years old, had a sulking fit when we refused to drive him to his planned sleepover at his friend’s house. About then Justin called home. The buses have quit running. Could I drive over and pick him up? Alan started shouting in the background that if I can go and get Justin I can take him to Boris’ house. I laughed so hard at both of them that I almost dropped the telephone receiver.
We went to bed with the house creaking. Our home was built in 1939 and has survived floods, severe summer storms, and many winters. It had no trouble mastering the worst blizzard on record. I was comforted thinking of the original owner, a Jew who eventually moved to Israel, who had built this sturdy warm house for his family on lot 318. Would he be pleased to know it was sheltering another Jewish family almost fifty years later? Was it religious fervor, Zionism, or Winnipeg winters that drove him to make aliyah?
We woke up to an official state of emergency and a full scale blizzard. We are on a main road and our street is a designated ambulance route. The plows went by at least once an hour but they could hardly keep up. The snowbanks, which had been almost melted, were over a meter high by lunchtime. We saw ambulances, each one accompanied by it’s personal snowplow, pass by a couple of time. Police in their four wheel drives went by frequently too. The fallen snow was lifted from the ground to far above the rooftops with the swirling winds. About this time I realized I had miscalculated on one thing. I was out of cat food. I gave the three complaining felines tuna and rice. They didn’t mind the change.
At noon we heard that the hospitals were asking for more volunteers to move staff to and from their homes. They had enough drivers who had transported enough people that they did not need volunteers to work at the hospitals but those with 4x4s and time were asked to contact them. By 1:00 pm we heard that police had switched from their four wheel drives to their fleet of a dozen snowmobiles. Ambulances were having such trouble getting around that they were now being accompanied by a front end loader in addition to a snowplow. Response time was down from 5 minutes to fifteen, twenty if you lived on a back street. So far, all women in labor had made it to the hospital, though it was close in one case. Moms and babies were all doing fine.
The drift across our front yard reached two meters in height by 3:00 pm. The snow eased up a bit. Telephone calls to friends showed everyone was fine. Justin was still stuck at his friend’s house. Their mother had left her storm stocking until Saturday night and ended up not being able to get home. She stayed at her grown son’s house leaving my son and her two younger boys to make due alone. Justin reported he had been reduced to eating dry cereal. I suggested he come home. He replied he had no winter clothing with him and so it was too dangerous to walk in an 1950 windchill. I refrained from saying I told you so.
Just before supper Alan left to walk to our friends David and Hadass’ and help shovel them out. He was in his warmest things and we outlined his route in advance. Hadass called as soon as he was there safely. He had made good time, taking only twenty minutes to do it. I was worried about him the entire time he was gone but it was the worry of a mother who knows her kids can handle it but isn’t quite ready to handle it herself. He came home a few hours later utterly exhausted, ate a huge meal, and toppled into bed early. He slept 12 and a half hours but was so very proud of himself. His first day of being a man doing a man’s work. Just before he retired he said he had decided we were right about cancelling his sleep over. He liked his buddy Boris but not enough to spend 48 hours with him.
More news. The schools would be closed the next day. Weather records were falling and this was now the worst blizzard since 1965. The airport was closed, volunteers were still needed for the hospital staff. Taxis were nonexistent. More requests. Stalled vehicles were making it difficult for ambulances even with their escorts. Please stay inside. All highways in the province were reported closed and a mall in the western part of the city had been converted into an emergency shelter. Three reports of collapsed roofs due to snowfall and ice accumulation. So far, our electricity was fine but many people in rural areas were without power. Telephones were out too, in some of the tiny communities. For the first time in history the Winnipeg Free Press was not delivered.
Monday morning we awoke to calm. The blizzard was over. I lay in bed and noticed first that the creaking of the house was gone and second the sound of an airplane. After that I could hear the neighbour’s slow blower. I looked out our back window and the snow was so deep that the tops of cars I could see were level with the snow. There were a few suspicious mounds that were likely more than drifts if I remembered rightly from last night.
Canada geese had started arriving last week. As I looked out at the back alley turned to a farmer’s field there was a report on the radio about a huge flock spotted heading south again. We got dressed and went outside to shovel off our walk. The drift across was shoulder height. Another drift by the garage was halfway up the door and alley was waist deep with snow. Most of the snow was light and fluffy, easy to shovel, but there was a three centimeter layer of ice at the bottom of the new snow. Dick wrenched his wrist using a spade to dig out the back door enough to provide us with a fire escape if we needed it. We shovelled out the garage door and the path to the alley. The boundary between our garage pad and the back alley was up to Dick’s hips. What will that plow leave when it finally goes through? The roads were still impassable on all but the main routes.
I walked to the Safeway store to get some more milk and cat food. Drifts made even pedestrian travel hard. My ten year old daughter, Lana, went behind me in my footprints to keep from falling over. She was wearing old boots and mitts her brothers had outgrown. She forgot her winter things at school on Friday. She hoped out loud no one she knew would recognize her in her seriously fashion impaired state. She was dressed in a very uncool way, which in Winnipeg can often a matter of life or limb in winter. I used the opportunity to prod her about the changability of Canadian weather and the importance of assuming nothing, especially in April and October.
We passed two semi trailers parked in the Safeway parking lot. They had managed to get off the highway sometime during the night and parked at the first safe place they found. The store manager said the drivers were at the A&W across the street. A policeman in the store was telling stories about his adventures and the few shoppers there were gathered around to listen. He was picking up some milk and a loaf of bread on the way home from work in his 4×4. He told us the new police chief (a nonWinnipegger) had wanted to retire the fleet of four wheel drives and snowmobiles as being too great an expense to maintain. We all laughed at that one. He has changed his mind, the officer added with a chortle.
There is only one cashier and the manager but the number of customers is light and no one was getting more than a few things, since we are all walking, so the wait wasn’t too bad. The parking lot was empty except for the semis and the white and blue police 4X4. The entrance to the store is a parking lot of sleighs. Funny how much our plastic purple sleigh with the crack in it sitting among hardwood toboggans and the molded speedsters reminded me of our beat up old station wagon in the lot on a regular day.
On the walk home we passed a crew of eight First Nations men who were walking around looking for people to rescue. They stopped and freed a woman with a stuck van. We shared a few jokes as we passed them and the woman drove away shouting thanks before I watched them move on to the next vehicle.
My eldest stumbled in, cold and very hungry, about 2:00 pm. He vowed next time I say blizzard he will listen as he headed for the fridge. Milk he shouted with delight and polished off two liters in two long gulps. Does he look like he got frost bite he asked me? No I assured him after checking his ears. What a pain walking home in this weather in only a spring coat he said between gulps. Well you looked cool, I replied. He was not amused.
Alan walked to the video store to return an overdue video and rent a game. They didn’t charge us an overdue fee. Requests were still coming over the radio for drivers with four wheel drives for the hospitals. Now that the airport is open there were also plenty of newly arrived passengers who can’t get out of the airport so they need volunteers there as well. Twelve taxi drivers are on the street for the whole city.
A neighbour with a 4×4 stopped in to borrow our tow ropes and make sure we were all right. He was pulling people’s vehicles out of snowbanks and delivering groceries. We gently suggested the hospital or the airport but he just snorted with disbelief. He was too busy with neighbours, been going since 7:00 am and no end in site.
It’s evening now and the sound of snowplows is constant. The snow blowers have quit for the night. No sign of a plow for the back alley. I finished that paper I was working on. I got the upstairs bathroom cleaned. I even finally got that grungy build up off the toilet. My diet is blown for today because the kids made chocolate chip cookies and there is nothing so tempting as hot chocolate chip cookies when you’re snowed in. I must have eaten at least a dozen. All the laundry is actually washed, folded, and put away in one day. This is a record for me as great as the record of the worst blizzard in Winnipeg history. I watched the Sally Jessie Raphael show on TV. Tomorrow is supposed to be better but no school for the kids and since no parking is available at the university and we’re supposed to take the bus in, well I’m skipping class. Besides, tomorrow’s Sally looks great and I wouldn’t want the downstairs bathroom to feel I was playing favorites.