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Snow day

Fifty years later, weather-watcher reflects on the city’s worst blizzard

It was a dark and stormy night.

It was a dark and stormy night.

That’s not just the first line of a truly terrible novel; it’s also a perfect description of the worst blizzard to ever batter Winnipeg.

Fifty years ago this Friday — on March 4, 1966 — the city was buried by a 16-hour blizzard that many residents firmly believe was the true storm of the century.

To dig out the facts on this chilly anniversary, the Free Press sat down with 92-year-old John Junson, who has been in the weather business as a federal meteorologist, private forecaster and columnist for a stunning 73 years.

Prepare to be blown away. We mean that figuratively, of course, because the official forecast for Friday’s 50th anniversary is pretty tame.

The snowfall

Terrifying trivia: The snow began falling just after midnight on March 4, 1966, and when it was over, 35.5 centimetres had piled up — an amount that would not be surpassed until 43.2 cm fell during the April storm of 1997.

Junson’s take: "I can’t remember anything that comes close. It was the worst storm because of the blowing snow. The snowbanks were up to the roofs of houses. 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."

The wind

Terrifying trivia: As winds howled at 80 kilometres per hour and gusted up to 109 km/h, the snow-covered streets were littered with abandoned cars, trucks and transit buses. Schools were closed, along with most schools and businesses.

Junson’s take: "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."

The fallout

Terrifying trivia: About 1,600 people were forced to spend the night downtown inside The Bay and Eaton’s, while drifts of up to eight feet were reported in Westwood and two men died of heart attacks trying to walk home.

Junson’s take: "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."

The aftermath

Terrifying trivia: A network of 50 ham radio operators set up an emergency network to direct delivery of food. Then-mayor Stephen Juba famously drove through the morning storm in his big Cadillac to city hall, where he set up emergency headquarters and advised the rest of the city to remain calm and stay off the streets.

Junson’s take: "People didn’t panic. People were just listening to the radio and thinking up ways to go get their groceries."

When the storm shut down the city, Junson was fortunate enough to be home because it was a day off from his job as a meteorological technician at the Winnipeg Airport weather office.

Days later, here’s what he wrote about "the roaring lion storm" in his weekly Free Press weather column: "Weather observer Al Rogers stayed alone throughout the storm issuing hourly reports from the observing station on the west side of the airport. His aviation reports for 16 consecutive hours read, ‘Ceiling zero, visibility zero in snow and blowing snow.’ "

The last word

Here’s what Free Press reporter Raymond Sinclair had to say of the eerie silence that fell over the city 50 years ago: "The end of the world could well have been this day."

And one final last word: How do Winnipeggers handle disasters like the blizzard of 1966? Well, when a reporter checked in on what was happening at the Viscount Gort Hotel, he discovered about 100 stranded guests having a roaring singalong in the bar.

So let’s all raise a glass on the 50th anniversary of what this city will always call The Great Blizzard. And keep your snow shovel handy Friday, because you never (bad word) know...

 

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Saturday, March 5, 2016 at 1:00 PM CST: Corrects which city hall it was

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