Temporary apocalypses: The role of blizzards in American history.

blizzard of 1950 2

Today, in fact as I write this (January 22, 2016), snow is falling heavily on certain parts of the eastern United States, and while the full fury of what meteorologists are calling “Winter Storm Jonas” hasn’t yet struck, it probably will have by the time most of you read this. The storm is expected to pack a huge wallop, burying many Eastern cities including New York in more snow than they’ve seen for a long time. (Just for the record, don’t fall for the climate change denial nonsense that blizzards “disprove” global warming). Predicting history–much less the weather–is always a tricky business, so we have no way of knowing if Jonas will be memorable in weather history, much less if it will achieve a durable moniker like “The Blizzard of 2016” or, God forbid, “The Great Blizzard of 2016.” While browsing news of the impending storm today, principally on Twitter, I got thinking about how blizzards and snow events resonate through American history, how we perceive them and what their experiences mean historically. I’ve done numerous articles on this blog profiling various blizzards, such as the “Nor’easter from Hell” of 1978, the Great Omaha Blizzard of 1975, the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 and the Great Appalachian Storm of 1950. Why do we memorialize these storms the way we do? It’s a fair question.

If you think about it, blizzards are sort of temporary apocalypses. A major snow event can paralyze transportation, knock out power, strand people in their houses or workplaces, cripple social services, and generally disrupt daily life to a significant degree. The temporary disruption can be very severe: though more of an ice storm than a blizzard, Montreal’s great storm of 1998 required the Canadian military to organize relief efforts. Blizzard and storm narratives often involve the same tropes we envision in a “zombie apocalypse”: normally busy urban streets dark and deserted, survivors hunkered down in their homes, a sense of “every man for himself” at least until order is restored. In the case of blizzards, though, order always is restored in hours or days after the storm passes and clean-up efforts can get underway. In a winter storm in Portland, Oregon in 2004 I remember Broadway was deserted and commuter trains were abandoned, their doors yawning wide open, in the middle of streets, an eerie sight to be sure, but it didn’t last very long. While blizzards do kill people regularly, and sadly Jonas probably will too, the vast majority of “survivors” will come through perfectly fine, perhaps with great stories to tell, but their lives will return to normal in fairly short order.

Day of the Triffids was a classic science fiction novel written by John Wyndham in the 1950s that really set the apocalyptic genre. It has been filmed in 1962, 1981 and most recently (this trailer) in 2009. There are commonalities between fictional apocalypses and real-life blizzard narratives.

There’s something about disaster and apocalypse that tempts and attracts us. As carefully ordered as our modern society is, we secretly long to see it in flames, or are darkly fascinated by what might happen if it starts to break down. Witness the enduring popularity of apocalyptic movies and books, everything from John Wyndham’s classic Day of the Triffids to modern stories about zombies (and my own books about zombie apocalypses occurring in the past). Blizzards and storms give us a unique opportunity to see what this is like in real life, with the “safe” feature of knowing that, for most of us, we won’t have to live in an apocalyptic world for longer than a few days, as long as it takes for power to be restored, streets dug out and chilly houses and apartments returned to habitability. That’s no comfort for the loved ones of the people who do die in blizzards, but again, because most of us can be pretty confident of surviving these disasters, the fascination of the breakdown of normal orders of living can be indulged.

This was certainly the case for me personally when I was caught in another Portland snowstorm, that of Christmas 2008, which I detailed here (and Part II, here). Stranded alone by the storm with little capability of reaching the outside world, both due to the storm itself and peculiarities of the Christmas holidays, I quickly adapted into an altered mode of daily living, which proved as contemplative and interesting as it was alienating and inconvenient. When a major blizzard strikes a major city or region, like the Great Blizzard of 1888 in the Northeast, these kinds of experiences are shared broadly and eventually form a collective history that most people who live there can share. When I lived in Omaha in the 1980s I remember people talking about the 1975 storm as a means of commonality, of connection. “What did you do during the great snow?” might be a rite of inclusion into a community as much as it might seem to be small-talk. This may be why we “like” to remember blizzards and storms.

winter storm jonas 2016

And here we go again? These photos were taken in West Virginia at the commencement of the 2016 storm known as “Winter Storm Jonas.”

Weather does matter in history. It’s part of our environment and affects our lives dramatically and constantly, from influencing what clothes we put on in the morning to what we share on social media (witness some of the photos in above, which were posted this morning by someone I follow on Twitter). Extreme weather events–ones that disrupt our daily routines, require unusual responses, or perhaps even threaten our lives and safety–become history in a unique and transformative way. A blizzard is an impersonal thing, a mass of cold air that has no consciousness, no ideology, no “point” in existing; it just is. Yet it’s our human responses to such an event that makes it history. This is the essence of environmental history, which is the study of humans’ relationships to the natural environment in the past. It remains to be seen if Winter Storm Jonas will merit a chapter in American environmental history, but certainly many other winter storms have, and those people who lived through them were the ones who defined what they are and how we remember them. History is above all a process of memory and narrative.

Good luck to everyone on the East Coast, stay warm and safe.

The photo at the top of the page may have appeared originally in the Duquesne Times in the 1950s, and was reproduced at the Duquesne Hunky blog article here. I believe it may be in the public domain. Photos from today’s storm were graciously provided by Some_Tyler_Dude on Twitter, used with permission.
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3 Comments

  1. I feel like I should have a badge that says “I survived the winter of 2014-2015.” We had three successive blizzards within two weeks. We were buried. Eight feet of snow, give or take a few inches in just two weeks. We had three months of winter in about four weeks. Now I live in actual dread of winter. Before, it was merely inconvenient. Now, it’s terrifying.

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