This past winter the United States experienced some wild weather, as have other parts of the world. Here in the thumb of Michigan the ice coverage on the water resulted in a large number of eagles being seen on the river to the extent that they were written about in local newspapers. The ice on the great lakes will help raise water tables that have been low for years while it has negatively affected the shipping industry as the ice cutters were unable to keep the shipping channels clear. Bitter cold, snow and ice were encountered at unusual levels all across the country.
I recently watched a special on TV that dealt with the affects of global warming, the melting glaciers, and claimed this wild weather may be our new normal and may become worse. Flooding, mud slides, earthquakes, hurricanes, could all progressively increase as the glaciers melt and our earth adjusts to the changes. While I don’t discount scientific studies or the fact that industry and resulting pollution contribute to the changes, I also know that wild weather has been going on for centuries, prior to when modern industry existed. Our ancestors encountered it without the modern means of communication to provide them with warnings or obtain assistance. No telephones, automobiles, or satellites, just the surprise of whatever happened and human determination to rebuild their lives after disaster.
It was April 12, 1934 when the weather observatory in Mount Washington, New Hampshire recorded a wind speed of 231 mph, but it was all the way back on January 22, 1885 when the temperature dropped to 50 degrees below zero at that same location. Fifty below zero was also recorded in East Portal, Utah on January 5, 1913. That was when the primary means of travel was horse and buggy and homes and homes were heated by fireplace or wood burning stoves. Imagine traveling in an unheated carriage or having to go out and gather wood to heat your home in those temperatures. Over the years bone-freezing temperatures have made their mark on history. The coldest temperature in the 48 contiguous states was 70 below zero in Rogers Pass, Montana on January 20, 1954, but Prospect Creek, Alaska sets the record for the coldest temperature in the United States with 80 below zero on January 23, 1971.
Extreme temperatures on the positive side have also occurred in history. It was way back on July 10, 1913 that Death Valley National Park was the world’s hottest place at 134 degrees. It was surprising to learn that Fort Yukon, Alaska was 100 degrees on June 27, 1915. There were several dates in the mid 1930′s that cities in the U.S. recorded temperatures at 118 degrees or higher, but it was way back on July 20, 1898 and August 10, 1898 that the towns of Prineville and Pendleton, Oregon reached 119 degrees. As if that wasn’t hot enough on its own, that was before air conditioning or even electric fans. Combined with the suits that men wore or the long sleeved, high-necked dresses with multiple layers of underclothing that women wore and you can only imagine how horribly uncomfortable it must have been for everyone.
Temperature certainly impacts our lives on a daily basis, but natural disasters have also occurred throughout history and at times when the modern warning systems, means of communicating a need for help or quick and easy transportation did not exist. Imagine living in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in May 1889 and the fear, devastation and horrendous work of clean up after ten inches of rain fell in under 24 hours causing a dam to break. Try to envision a 30-foot high wall of water traveling 40 mph towards town and the residents unaware of what was bearing down on them. That day more than 2,200 people were killed. Just the need to get that many bodies buried before disease and the stench of decay set in would have been emotionally and physically exhausting.
If you ever visit Galveston, Texas you can tour the Moody Mansion, the only building left intact after a category 4 hurricane struck the island town on September 8, 1900. With winds reaching 130 to 140 miles per hour and a storm surge of 15.7 feet hitting the island where elevation was only 8.7 feet, the hurricane destroyed 3,600 buildings and killed between 6,000 to 8,000 people, including 90 children from St. Mary’s Orphans Asylum. Isaac’s Storm by Eric Larson brings the story of this attack by nature to life.
We watched what we considered to be unusual winter storm weather move across the United States this year. In some ways history was repeating itself, but with our modern technology we were able to avoid the disastrous results such weather caused in the past. It was March 11 and March 12, 1888 that 40-50″ of snow fell on Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York resulting in the death of over 400 people and causing 200 ships at sea to sink. On February 11, 1899 snow fell beginning in Florida all the way up the eastern seaboard, in one day dumping 20″ of snow in Washington DC and 34″ in New Jersey. The book The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin is a gripping tale of the blizzard that took place on January 12, 1888 in the Dakota Territory and Nebraska. The storm came up fast and unexpectedly, dropping temperatures from above freezing to a 40 below windchill and leaving adults and school children stranded and lost, sometimes only a few feet from shelter. A total of 235 people died in that storm. Those who live in the Blue Water Area of Michigan are familiar with the Storm of 1913. This blizzard, called a White Hurricane, took place on the great lakes November 7, 1913 sinking ships and killing many.
We now have exited winter and are approaching the season for tornadoes. Hopefully history will not repeat itself with more natural disasters such as the May 7, 1840 tornado that hit Natchez, Mississippi killing 317 people. There was no warning system of TV, radio, internet to warn those in its path. There were 317 reported deaths from the tornado, but slaves were not counted and so the death toll was likely much higher. St. Louis Missouri had a massive tornado rip through the downtown area on May 27, 1896 killing 255 people and injury about 1,000 others. Over 8,800 buildings were damaged or destroyed. St. Louis also experienced another massive hit on September 29, 1927 when a tornado tore apart more than 200 city blocks in a period of about four minutes. The deadliest tornado in the United States took place on March 18, 1925 covering between 219 to 234 miles and leaving 695 dead and 2,027 injured. This tornado traveled from southeastern Mississippi through the southern portion of Illinois and then into southwestern Indiana. The tornado lasted for over three and a half hours with an average width of 3/4 of a mile and a speed of approximately 62 miles an hour and destroying approximately 15,000 homes that were in its path.
Looking back in history it is easy to determine that the wild weather of today may be of extreme proportions, but it is not new to this decade. Massive storms have been happening for centuries and people have been enduring the hardships of destruction and recovery throughout history. Wild weather can be found in the past, present and most likely will continue in the future.