A blizzard to remember
Retired weather expert recalls the storm that paralyzed Winnipeg 50 years ago
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/03/2016 (2351 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Like most Winnipeggers, John Junson loves talking about the weather.
Unlike most Winnipeggers, John knows what he’s talking about.
At the age of 92, talking about the weather has been his livelihood and passion for a stunning 73 years.
In 1943, fresh out of high school, he signed on with what was then known as the Department of Transport as a meteorological technician. He retired from Environment Canada in 1980, having spent most of his time advising air crews from the Winnipeg airport weather office.
In 1987, he founded Weathertec Services, a company that for years provided weekly forecasts and weather maps to newspapers on the Prairies, including the Free Press, and the United States. It remains his hobby.
From 1962 until about 1980, he wrote a Saturday weather column that — unlike the one I banged together for several years — proved to be remarkably accurate.
I sat down with John Wednesday morning at the Sturgeon Creek Retirement Residence, where he still keeps a wary eye on the weather radar from a computer in his room, to chat about Friday’s 50th anniversary of the worst storm that ever socked Winnipeg in the face.
Fifty years ago Friday, on March 4, 1966, Winnipeg was brought to a shuddering halt by a monster blizzard unlike anything the city had seen. When Winnipeggers talk about the Blizzard of the Century, they’re talking about March 1966.
“I can’t remember anything that comes close,” John told me. “It was the worst storm because of the blowing snow. The snowbanks were up to the roofs of houses.
“The visibility was almost zero for 16 consecutive hours because of the blowing snow. During those 16 hours, there were no planes landing or taking off.”
As Junson’s crew had predicted, the snow began falling just after midnight March 4. By morning, schools were closed, along with most stores and businesses. They even had to cancel hockey games, if you can imagine.
The city was battered by 80 km/h winds that gusted up to 109 km/h, and when it was all over, there was 35.5 centimetres of snow on the ground, an amount that would not be surpassed until 43.2 centimetres piled up in April 1997.
“It was a Colorado low and warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico was flowing north up over the clouds, and the storm was on,” Junson recalled.
“The main thing was it stopped all traffic. There was no movement except on snowshoes and skis and snowmobiles. It brought the city to a standstill.”
With the howling winds and blowing snow, the streets were littered with abandoned cars, trucks and transit buses. Doctors and nurses were famously ferried to work on snowmobiles.
In Westwood, there were reports of 2.4-metre drifts, while downtown 1,600 people were forced to spend the night inside the Bay and Eaton’s as hundreds more remained trapped in buses stuck on snow-covered streets. Two men died of heart attacks trying to walk home.
In the final edition of the Free Press March 4, 1966, the headline screamed: Wild Blizzard Rakes Province — Worst in History.
In a strange bit of luck, Junson was safely home with his wife and two children when the storm hit because it was his day off from work at the airport weather office.
In his weather column six days after the blizzard, he poetically noted: “March came in like a lamb followed closely by the roaring lion storm that whipped the city into maimed immobility last week.”
The longtime weather expert, who still “dabbles” with his weather-map business, said Winnipeggers dealt with the blizzard with the stoicism for which they are justly famed.
“People didn’t panic,” he said laughing, even though he is recovering from a nasty bout of bronchitis. “People were just listening to the radio and thinking up ways to go get their groceries.”
The day after the city was paralyzed, Junson, a scout leader at the time, took a group of neighbourhood kids snowshoeing. “I remember going to get groceries,” he said. “We were just glad to get out and move.”
On the upside, Environment Canada is forecasting a mild, snow-free day for the 50th anniversary Friday.
Junson said the weather is our favourite topic for conversation because, unlike many cities, we are no strangers to nature’s violent mood swings.
“Winnipeg is the centre of the continent, and the weather is extreme,” he noted. “It goes from a very hot summer to 49 degrees below in the winter.”
Before leaving the seniors complex, I asked the veteran meteorologist what I thought was a killer question.
“After the blizzard, did you have to shovel your driveway?” I wondered, snickering.
The soft-spoken lover of all things weather-related just smiled. “Ha ha ha!” he replied. “You DON’T shovel 10 feet of snow!”
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.