Virginia's Historic Snowstorms

NOVEC says be prepared for the big ones!

Snow has fallen in Virginia for centuries, whether because of the “Little Ice Age” from the 12th-19th centuries or because of climate change in recent decades. Although Virginia’s snowstorms don’t usually compare to those recorded by our northern neighbors — such as Bostonians who shoveled 109 inches of snow in 2015 — some have caused so much havoc that meteorologists call them “historic.” Here are a few notable ones that turned much of Virginia white for days.

  1. Jan. 28, 1772: Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson noted in their diaries that 3 feet of snow fell. The Washington-Jefferson snowstorm is Virginia’s biggest snowfall ever recorded.
  2. Jan. 16-18, 1857: The Great Blizzard’s foot of snow and wind wrecked ships at sea and almost buried Norfolk under 20-foot snowdrifts. Virginia’s rivers froze. At the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, one could walk from the lighthouse 100 yards on the frozen Atlantic.
  3. March 11-13, 1888: The Blizzard of '88 or White Hurricane took down nascent electric lines and telegraph poles from Washington to New York. Strong winds emptied the Potomac River’s Tidal Basin and grounded ships in Baltimore’s harbor while flooding coastal areas.
  4. February 1899: The Great Arctic Outbreak and the Great Eastern Blizzard dumped a total of 54-inches of snow in February in Warrenton. Quantico froze at 20 degrees below zero. Authorities rationed food. The month was so cold that ice flowed from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico.
  5. Jan. 28, 1922: Exactly 150 years after the Washington and Jefferson Storm came a band of snow that immobilized Washington under 28 inches. The snow’s heavy weight caused the roof of the Knickerbocker Theater in Northwest Washington to collapse on 900 movie-goers waiting eagerly to see a new George M. Cohan silent-movie comedy. Nearly 100 people died.
  6. From a Jan. 29, 1922, Washington Post article:
  7. HUNDREDS, DEAD OR INJURED, BURIED UNDER RUINS AS ROOF OF KNICKERBOCKER THEATER COLLAPES; RESCUERS BATTLE STORM THAT PARALYZES CITY: Wounded Are Slowly Dragged From Tangled Mass of the Debris … Relatives Weep in Vain at Yawning Doors of Wrecked Building

With a roar, mighty as a crack of doom, the massive roof of the Knickerbocker broke loose from its steel moorings and crashed down upon the heads of those in the balcony. Under the weight of the fallen roof, the balcony gave way. Most of the audience was entombed. It was as sudden as the turning off of an electric light.

… No description will do justice to the awfulness of the tragedy.

… The labor of rescue was incomparably difficult. The standing walls, unroofed as clean as if a giant’s knife had just cut the top off and left no vestige of it, enveloped a wild jumble of concrete, twisted steel, tangled railings, boulders of snow and indiscriminate tangle of wood and iron that a few moments before were the furnishings of a playhouse de luxe.

… In the lobby of the theater, firemen and policemen and strong civilians worked as best they could in an endeavor to extricate the wounded and the dead. It was a task that tried the souls of men.

… A man came to the entrance, willing to fight his way in if necessary. He was the husband of a young bride who, with a girlfriend, had attended the theater. “You can’t hold me back” he cried. “I’ve got to get in there. Mary’s there, and she wants me with her.” It took three able-bodied policemen to hold him back.

… A small boy … helped keep life in a group of victims trapped far back under the place where the balcony had been. He forced his body through a small opening in the debris far enough to reach tablets [painkillers] to several victims.

… Lying in Emergency hospital last night … a Georgetown University law student told his story as follows: “I was sitting in the second row of the orchestra. Suddenly a sinister sort of whistling noise above my head made me look up. It was exactly the noise made by the whine of a bullet through the air. Then, to my horror, I saw the roof of the theater open and down it came with a splitting crash that I will never forget. The whole world seemed to fall on me and I don’t remember anything for some time, perhaps an hour. I was almost sorry when I did come to, for the screams of the injured seemed to ring to heaven. I could hear and feel horribly suffering people trying to wiggle out of the debris like mangled worms. Then I heard footsteps above my head of rescuers. I shouted and shouted. Some one heard, for they dislodged enough of the concrete covering to put down a long glass tube full of brandy. I took a long drink.

…Long experience in coal mines enabled W. H. Morris, a 63-year-old retired coal mine manager of Buckhahon, W. Va., to escape from the death trap. …“I heard a crack, a sort of ripping sound, exactly like that which the slate roof of a coal measure makes when it is going to let go. It was more instinct than anything else that brought me to my feet with one thought flashing through my mind: I can beat that fall to the outside. As I came into the aisle I saw the orchestra leader’s baton waving with the music and a little white cloud coming down above his head. Then I ran up the aisle, with the roof cracking and falling above me. As I got to the floor the stuff began to hit me in a wave of wind from behind which literally flung me through the door and across the lobby to the sidewalk.  

Next to the Sept. 11, 2001, airplane attack on the Pentagon that killed 189 people, the roof collapse during the Knickerbocker Storm ranks as the region’s second worst-ever disaster. 

  1. Jan. 30-31, 1966: A blizzard added to a previous snow. It crippled transportation and caused food shortages.
  2. Feb. 18-19, 1979: Snow fell 2 to 3 inches per hour during this Presidents’ Day Storm. Temperatures plummeted into single digits as farmers, who had come to Washington to protest agricultural pricing, used their tractors to help clear roads and parking lots, and deliver personnel to hospitals.
  3. Feb. 10-12, 1983: The newly formed Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative worked around the clock to restore power to parts of its territory that had snow drifts as high as 5 feet.
  4. Nov. 11, 1987: The Veteran's Day Storm caught meteorologists off guard and caused commuters to abandon their vehicles as a foot of snow fell. Snowplows and utility trucks had to maneuver through clogged roads. Afterwards, the region developed the Washington Metropolitan Area Snow Plan.
  5. March 13-14, 1993: The Superstorm of March '93 from Florida to Maine dropped over a foot of snow, spawned 11 tornados, and caused more than 200 deaths. In the Mid-Atlantic, weather stations recorded their lowest pressure ever when the storm's center passed. Blizzard conditions in portions of Northern Virginia caused 12-foot snowdrifts. Shelters opened for nearly 4,000 stranded travelers and people without heat and electricity.
  6. January-February 1994: Below-zero arctic blasts caused such sudden spikes in electricity and natural-gas use that power companies along the eastern seaboard had to resort to rolling blackouts. A dozen snow, sleet, and freezing rain storms occurred, including one on Feb. 10-11 that coated trees and power lines with 1 to 3 inches of ice. Fallen trees blocked roads and knocked out power to 90 percent of homes and businesses. Some counties lost 10 percent of their trees.
  7. Jan. 7-13, 1996: The Blizzard of '96 covered Washington with 20 inches of snow and western Loudoun County with 3 feet of the stuff. As VDOT crews tried to clear the roads, an “Alberta Clipper” on Jan. 9 spread an additional 5 inches. Snow on Jan. 12 brought 4 to 6 more inches. By the end of the week, the region struggled to crawl out from under what looked like a frozen white mattress.
  8. Dec. 18-19, 2009: This 23-inch snowstorm was the largest single December snowfall in the history of the region’s three major airports. It provided a white Christmas.
  9. Feb. 5-6 and Feb. 9-10, 2010: During Snowmageddon, snow began falling on Feb. 5 and soon accumulated to 31 inches at Dulles Airport. Just as VDOT snowplows were making progress on Virginia roads, a blizzard hit on Feb. 9. Visibility dropped to less than 100 feet as 50 mph winds blew in another foot of snow. Snow fell so fast that Loudoun County fire fighters had to rescue a NOVEC crew trapped in a bucket truck. Snowmageddon marked the first time since snowstorm record-keeping started in 1884 that the region recorded two separate double-digit snowfalls not only in the same month, but in the same week. Dulles received 46 inches of snow, which made February 2010 the snowiest month at the airport since records began in 1963.
  10. Jan. 26, 2011: This intense storm started crystallizing the region in ice during the afternoon rush hour. Frustrated and frightened drivers left hundreds of cars and trucks stranded on roads as snow started falling at a rate of 2 to 3 inches per hour. The ice and heavy wet snow brought trees down on powerlines and plunged almost 400,000 people in the D.C. area into the dark. NOVEC restored power to its 36,000 customers who lost power before any other regional power company had their customers back online.
  11. Jan. 22-24, 2016: Snowstorm Jonas, a near blizzard, covered Dulles Airport’s runways with 29 inches and blanketed parts of West Virginia with 42 inches. Wind gusts reached 75 miles per hour along Virginia’s coast. Jonas blew in almost 18 inches of snow at Reagan-National Airport and tied with the Feb. 5-6, 2010, storm as the fourth heaviest since Washington started keeping records in 1884. Jonas was the single biggest snowstorm on record in parts of Pennsylvania and New York.

Be prepared for snowstorm outages

No matter how much snow falls or how fast the wind blows, NOVEC reminds Co-op members to be prepared for power outages that may occur. To prepare:

  • Call 703-335-0500 or 1-888-335-0500 to associate up to two current phone numbers with you account to expedite outage reporting and power restoration. Have your account number ready.
  • Keep cellphones charged since cordless phones don’t work when power is out.
  • Develop a plan for elderly or disabled family members.
  • Have an emergency kit ready with non-perishable food, water, lanterns, flashlights, fresh batteries, battery-operated radio, canned fuel, matches, manual can opener, first aid, prescription drugs, cash, and if applicable, pet food, and baby-care items.
  • Stock up on firewood for a wood-burning fireplace or stove. Cover wood with a tarp or stack some in a garage or carport to keep it dry. 
  • Fill the freezer — with ice if necessary — and have a cooler ready to preserve refrigerator foods.

 

Snow on Roofs

Modern building standards should prevent a roof from collapsing under two feet of snow, as happened to the Knickerbocker Theater. Nevertheless, roofs do collapse under snow. In winter 2015 after heavy snow accumulated, a Massachusetts farmer’s barn roof collapsed on his expensive cranberry-picking equipment and an antique car.

NOVEC recommends checking roofs and gutters after a big snowstorm occurs. Be SURE to check for power lines before positioning or climbing a ladder. A ladder could come in contact with a power line and cause a fatal accident.

To learn more outage information, go to www.novec.com/outageinfo.

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