23 January 2016

Memories of Washington DC snowstorms

All this talk of "snowzilla" — "snowmageddon" or "snowpocalypse" — in the Washington DC area in the States has me remembering storms I lived through back there, all those years ago. The city could get anywhere from 1 to 3 feet of snow today. Walt and I lived in Washington from 1982 until 1986, and I had spent a lot of time there with friends in the 1970s.

The Georgetown neighborhood in Washington DC with 19 inches of snow in February 1979

In February 1983, I had just started a new job with the federal government, working with CHM on a magazine that was published in both English and French. On Monday, February 10, it started snowing. By the time the snow ended the next day, we had over 16 inches (about 42 centimeters) of the white stuff on the ground. Federal workers were excused from going to work, because the city and its transit systems were paralyzed.

At the time, I happened to own a little 1979 Subaru station wagon that had on-demand four-wheel drive. In other words, the snow didn't really stop me from driving around. Walt and I spent a good part of the day touring the snow-covered city by car. There was no traffic to speak of, of course, and it was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, this was well before the days of the digital camera, so I have only the sketchy memories that have stayed in my head as a souvenir.

My 1979 4WD Subaru wagon

Here's a list of the top 10 deep snowfalls that Washington DC has experienced over the past century. The record, from 1922, amounted to 71 centimeters:

 1.    28.0”  (January 27-29, 1922)
 2.    20.0”  (February 12-14, 1899)
 3.    18.7”  (February 18-19, 1979)
 4.    17.8”  (February 5-6, 2010)
 5.    17.3”  (January 7-9, 1996)
 6.    16.6”  (February 10-11, 1983)
 7.    16.4”  (December 18-19, 2009)
 8.    16.4”  (February 16-18, 2003)
 9.    14.4”  (February 15-16, 1958)
10.   14.4”  (February 7, 1936)

I happened to be in Washington on February 18, 1979 too. That was storm no. 3 on the list above. The first photo in this post shows Georgetown in DC during the 1979 storm. Walt didn't take it, nor did I. He bought it for me as a present in 1983, and we had it framed. It hangs on a wall in our dining room now as a reminder of those snowstorms, which seem to hit Washington with some regularity.

As the February 1979 storm started, a friend was still willing to drive me out to Dulles airport as planned (thanks, Eleanor) in early evening so that I could fly back to Illinois, where I was living at the time. (By the way, we often had big snowstorms out there too — 150 miles south of Chicago). Dulles airport is 30 miles — 50 km — west of central Washington DC. We were about half way there when the car started sliding around because of snow and ice. We slid right off the road and I was sure I would never be able to get to the plane on time — I had to work the next day.

I was able to get out of the car and push it back onto the roadway as my friend spun the wheels in reverse from the driver's seat. We made it to the airport, and I barely caught my plane. It might have been the last plane to take off that evening from Dulles, because the runways were already snow-packed. I worried about my friend getting back to the city, but later she told me that she had been lucky to follow a snow plow all the way back from the airport to her house on the edge of Georgetown.

Our so-called snowstorms here in Saint-Aignan pale in comparison. Think good thoughts for CHM today. He's in Arlington, just outside DC. I hope his electricity doesn't go out because of the heavy snowfall. If it does, he'll be without lights, heat, or Internet access, and who knows for how long... Bon courage, CHM.

32 comments:

Andrew said...

It may be from ignorance, but here at times we are paralysed by extreme heat or heavy rain, neither of which are strangers to our city. The same seems to go for England, which seems no longer able to cope with snow. Heavy snow on the east coast of the US is not new, yet it seems to be an unfolding crisis.

ladybird said...

Best of luck to chm! If you're reading this, it means that you still have power. Let's hope it stays like that. Fingers & toes crossed (using your favourite expression :))Martine

chm said...

Thank you Ken and Martine. So far, so good. Let's keep it that way!

The snowstorm of the 1979 Presidents' Day weekend was spectacular. I have somewhere a Polaroid photo of the accumulation of snow on a table on the patio here in Arlington. That table is long gone, but I have two trash cans there and the accumulation, so far, seems to be greater than the one in 1979. And it's only Saturday at 6 on the morning! The storm is supposed to last until tomorrow morning!!

I remember also the snow storm that made Air Florida Flight 90 to crash into the icy waters of the Potomac on January 13, 1982. And, of course, I can't forget that one in 1983. Two major snow storms.

In 1983, I had walked home from work a while in the snow from the Metro station when two good Samaritains in a four-wheel drive proposed to take me home. The FSM dind't exist at the time but I thanked all the same.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Are you kidding? Imagine a foot, or two, or more of heavy snow on the streets of a densely built-up and crowded city. What do you do with it all? Where do you put it where it's not in the way? What does a person do when he or she goes out to the street and can't even find the car parked there the night before because a plow has gone through and thrown even more mounds of snow over all the cars parked along the curb? If it happened every week or even every month, nobody would live there. As it is, it happens every two or three years -- just often enough to be a big pain in the gluteus maximus each time.

Carolyn said...

CHM, I hope the FSM keeps you safe and warm today.

My brother's wedding was February 12, 1983, in Gettysburg. It was the deepest snowfall we'd had in Gettysburg since I was a child and we thought the wedding might have to be canceled. His future in-laws were stranded about 20 miles from Gburg and had to spend the night in a bar. As it turned out, everybody got there safely and it was a beautiful wedding. And, when the bride and groom got to Harper's Ferry, their first night's destination, they were upgraded to the top suite. David Stockman (remember that name from the Reagan years?) had reserved it for his honeymoon and had had to cancel.

NotesFromAbroad said...

I love the car .. I have a 2015 Subaru. I live in the Chathams, Upstate NY. Not a flake to be seen and I will be glad if it stays this way. I am so sick of snow already. We get FEET of snow every time it falls. The cats and I are so done .. we are moving South .. as far South as we can get. Buenos Aires was so perfect .. they had snow once in about 50 years, a tiny flurry, everyone ran around trying to catch a flake, something many had never seen in the city.

Ken Broadhurst said...

We were still working at 1776 Pennsylvania Avenue when the 1983 snowstorm hit DC. I always took the Metro to work in those days, so I wonder where my Subaru was parked. On the street somewhere, I guess, probably in Rosslyn. I don't remember if I drove to Westover that afternoon or evening to see Walt, or if I drove over there the next day to pick him up for the drive around DC in the snow. Do you think we all went back to work on the second day (Weds.) after the storm?

Ken Broadhurst said...

I had a good friend in California who ended up working for 6 or 7 years at Microsoft and living in Seattle. When she decided to retire, she moved to Naples, Florida. She said it was as far as she could get from Seattle, both meterologically and geographically, and still be in the Lower 48.

Travel said...

About a foot of snow here in Alexandria, and still falling, I was here for #4 on the list.

chm said...

There was so much snow on the ground that I don't think we were supposed to go to work the next day, especially since we were not considered to be essential wheels of the government machine! I probably stayed home.

chm said...

Yes, Carolyn, I remember David Stockman and one of the worst president we've ever had, second only to W.

So far, the FSM has been considerate, but we're not through with the storm yet. Keep my fingers crossed.

potty said...

As someone said ' It's the coldest (hottest) year since records began ... to be adjusted.'

Bob Rossi said...

I was living in Arlington during the 1979 storm. I remember going to bed having heard a forecast for a modest amount of snow. Then I woke up next morning and looked out the window and thought that something was wrong with my eyes.

Ken Broadhurst said...

I hope it doesn't turn into two feet -- or more.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Didn't realize you had lived in the DC area. I can't remember what I was doing there in Feb. '79. Some conference or something, I guess. That weekend, I got out just in time.

Ken Broadhurst said...

???

Evelyn said...

That's a wonderful photo of the snow. I like remembering big snows like these. People help one another and it is fun to try driving if you have the right vehicle (you did). My daughter just got a new Subaru, she replaced her Outback station wagon with another Outback.
Bonne chance, CHM!

Ken Broadhurst said...

Carolyn, you must be getting a lot of snow where you are, too.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Walt and I had three Subarus between 1982 and 1992. They were great cars. We drove one of them across the U.S. from D.C. to S.F. with a car-top carrier full of Walt's clothes and stuff over our heads. Then we towed another one along the same route, using it as a rolling greenhouse to move our houseplants to the West Coast, behind a truck full of our furniture, books, record albums, kitchen equipment, my clothes, and other stuff. That was a great time, in Washington, between our year in Paris, where we met, and San Francisco, where we lived for nearly 18 years.

Ken Broadhurst said...

We have English friends who had American friends who lived in Vallatie. We drove through there once, about 10 years ago. Close to you, I reckon. It must be called "the Chathams" because there are the villages of Chatham, Old Chatham, North Chatham, etc.

Seine Judeet (Judith) said...

Amen! That's what it was like in Boston last year (or the year before??)-- even relying on public transit was difficult, because it was hard to find anywhere to walk on the sidewalks, all caked with snow yards high, snow that was being moved off of the road. And, it went on for weeks. (I don't live in Boston, but one of my sisters does.)

Ken, funny, growing up in New Jersey, I absolutely never thought of DC as a place that got regular heavy hits of snowfall-- of course, "growing up" just meant a little stretch of about 15 years, which is nothing compared to the many decades we've lived since then, so my idea of what was "the norm" is skewed :) Your list of important snowfalls in DC was an eye opener!

CHM, hope all is still well for you!

Kiwi said...

Thanks for the beautiful picture of Georgetown in the snow. I went to Georgetown undergrad from 1973-77, and got married in February 1979. We moved out to my husband's home state of California early that month, but he had to go back to D.C. for a work assignment with the President, and had to deal with that storm! Love CHM's comment about Reagan and W., although I'm sure you want to generally stay apolitical. Cassoulet knows no political party. :)

Ken Broadhurst said...

I certainly have my political opinions, as you can imagine. I won't display them too much here, though. I started going to DC fairly regularly in the late '60s, when I was at Duke and had a lot of friends there who came from the DC area. After graduation, Duke friends moved or moved back to DC. It was a good stopover point on trips from Champaign-Urbana, where I lived then, to NC and back. I had always thought I would enjoy living in DC, but after four years there I decided I didn't like the weather and I didn't like the politics. For various reasons, Walt and I ended up moving to California and staying there until we got a chance to move to France, where we had first met in 1981.

potty said...

Can't trust the statistics these days , they have been manipulated.

Ken Broadhurst said...

I'm not sure I want to go there...

Andrew said...

Yes, well, it seems like it might be the biggest snowfall ever on the east coast of the US. It is hard to imagine the hot and humid New York that we visited as being snow bound and shut down. Some areas have snow a metre deep, so hard to imagine. Central Park did look quite lovely on our tv news though.

Bob Rossi said...

My platform: A cassoulet in every pot.

Bob Rossi said...

See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2016/01/23/washington-d-c-snowfall-total-called-into-question-after-improper-measurement/?hpid=hp_hp-top-table-main_cwg-measurements-905pm%3Ahomepage%2Fstory

ebs said...

That's the car you bought from me, yes? I think in the photo it's parked in the driveway in Wilmington. You & C took the train up to drive it back down. I, instead, headed to Bucharest. 19" again yesterday in DC. --B

Ken Broadhurst said...

Yes, that's the car that I bought from you in 1982, and the photo is one you took in Wilmington and gave me. It was fun having the 4WD, especially on that snow day in 1983. You must be snowed in right now.

Ken Broadhurst said...

They are saying the amount of snow that fell exceeded the amount measured at National airport.

ebs said...

Yes, funny how much age makes a difference. In 1983 I was out traipsing around – including to Georgetown. Today, I'm just hunkering inside.