This is Part II in my series of an interesting historical investigation I did into my own past. Weather and climate historians, especially in Britain, have recently been utilizing a relatively new technique of collecting memories and oral histories of weather events that people remember in their personal pasts, and then researching them to see how they stack up against the documentary record. It’s useful in understanding how and why people construct their views of themselves and their environment. I tried it on a series of powerful memories I had about a snowstorm I experienced in Omaha, Nebraska in November 1983 when I was 11. The first part of the series, giving the basic facts, is here. In this part I go a step further, because the “Thanksgiving blizzard” was not the end of the story.
Historical records show that the Thanksgiving 1983 storm–actually two storms, one small, one very big, which straddled the holiday–was a big one, though not so big as to achieve truly mythic status. In addition to checking newspaper records, I also consulted Storm Data, a circular put out by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the agency that nutty conspiracy buffs think is going to put them in concentration camps). The information from Storm Data was quite interesting. In addition to finding satellite photos of the event, I also found reports submitted by various weather observers. The official report for Nebraska reported 3 killed and 4 injured in an event involving “Blizzard and Heavy Snow.”
[from Storm Data] “Thousands of Thanksgiving weekend travelers were stranded and took shelter in motels, public buildings and private homes as roads became impassable…One man was found dead of exposure 8 miles northeast of Oshkosh the morning of November 28 after he evidently fell from a tractor the afternoon of November 27 as he was caring for cattle. Two people died from carbon monoxide poisoning around Ainsworth when snow blocked their furnace vent.”
This is what the Thanksgiving blizzard looked like from space. I’m down there somewhere–very small, of course!
After this storm, and after the indelible image of the ice crystals coming down the patio slider window, I remember being off school a long time. The Omaha World-Herald microfilm archives confirmed that schools in my area were closed for two days, November 28 and 29. Interestingly, I read in the paper, this eventually became an issue. I recall being off school at least one other day within the next few weeks after the storm. Indeed several other snow and freezing rain events occurred in the first few weeks of December, and Omaha schools cancelled classes a few more times. This accounts for why I recall being home all day on a Friday without being sick, which I think was December 9. The school district was flooded with angry phone calls about calling school on bad predictions. According to the newspaper, a school official said that he had never seen such public interest in weather before. There was a palpable sense that that winter, 1983-84, was somehow unusual for its severity.
I remember another weather event related to this perception. One night shortly before Christmas my parents took me to a play at a dinner theater. The play, I recall, was Arsenic and Old Lace, which they thought I’d like because even as a kid I enjoyed the screwball comedy movie version, made in the 1940s, with Cary Grant. The night we went to the theater, though, was horribly, dangerously cold. I remember the temperature was 22 degrees below zero, a figure I recall because it remains the coldest day I’ve ever experienced in my life. This year, 2016, as I was browsing the newspaper microfilms for weather data, I also looked at the entertainment listings, hoping I could nail down an exact date of this event. Sure enough, I found it. A low of -22° F was recorded in Omaha on the evening of December 22, 1983. In the paper for that date I also found an advertisement for Arsenic and Old Lace, playing at the Upstairs Dinner Theater at 221 S. 19th Street. The theater, fondly remembered in Omaha, closed years ago.
The Upstairs Dinner Theater used to be located in the Woodmen Tower, which was Omaha’s tallest building from its construction in 1969 until 2002. Like almost all dinner theaters, the Upstairs no longer exists.
The most ominous thing I found in my research was something I did not remember. On December 18, 1983, the Omaha World-Herald ran on its editorial page a column by B.D. Colen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who then edited Newsday’s science section. The column reported on some ominous scientific findings coming out of various agencies and think tanks regarding the “greenhouse effect.” The terms “climate change” and “global warming,” not interchangeable, were used in scientific discourse but had not yet seeped into the public; those terms did not appear in the article, but a scientist quoted in it, one Robert M. White, then President of the National Academy of Engineering, made some sobering comments. There was no dispute, he said, that CO2 from human activities was warming the climate. It was absolutely proven. The only question was what to do about it. According to this article White said, “We now have 10 to 20 years to research the problem, but then we better be ready to change policy.” The deadline on White’s warning ran out in 2003–thirteen years ago. Dr. White just died a few months ago, in October 2015.
When I saw this editorial I felt like an arrow of time had shot me in the chest. Climate change has become a huge part of my life, and I just wrote recently about how I believe it will dominate our collective future to a degree no one is really prepared for. Here was this column, written 33 years ago, warning of this exact same thing, and it ran in this newspaper during the same curious season whose weather events etched themselves so indelibly into my memory. The story I’m telling in my ongoing podcast, The Valley of Forever, has as one of its themes currents of time and memory that converge at key moments of a person’s life. I think the late autumn and early winter of 1983 was such a convergence for me.
Robert M. White was the first head of the NOAA and a groundbreaking weather scientist. His brother was Presidential historian Theodore H. White.
It amazed me to notice, as I was doing this project, just how long ago this all was. We are now as far-removed in time from 1983 as 1983 was from the year 1950. Probably some of the people who will read this blog weren’t even alive then. Yet these memories are so alive to me that they might have happened last night. Memory and history are two ways we try to make sense of time. They are imperfect to be sure, and sometimes it’s useful to challenge them and push the envelope of their capabilities. After this experience of researching my own weather history, I will never look at memory–or at ice crystals on a wintry window–in quite the same way again.