The famed Blizzard of '83 buried the Baltimore area in almost 2 feet of snow

February 08, 1993|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

The Blizzard of '83 was just a gleam in a weatherman's eye the second Tuesday of that year's February, when a low-pressure system entered the country from the cold Pacific Ocean and resolutely headed for the Rocky Mountains.

It was over northeastern Nevada by the next day, and the weather forecasters, poring over their charts and checking their computers, began to utter a U.S. Weather Service equivalent of "Uh-Oh." At noon Wednesday, the service issued a winter-storm watch for the East Coast.

On Thursday, the storm center had ridden a cold front down to the lower Mississippi Valley and was sucking up moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and dropping it on Texas and the Gulf States.

By that time, the elements of a classic East Coast winter storm were developing: cold air streaming down from the Arctic on the northern jet stream, warm air loaded with moisture riding the southern jet stream. The two forces appeared ready to converge over the Middle Atlantic states, and the Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for Baltimore.

Snow, maybe lots of it, was ahead, and panic set in on blizzard eve. Baltimore went on a shopping spree for the staples of life: bread, milk and lottery tickets.

"I'm giving up," one woman said as she threaded her way through a jammed supermarket parking lot. "I'd rather starve than get run over by a shopping cart."

Ten years ago this week, on Friday, Feb. 12, the storm struck before dawn. Snow began falling in Baltimore about 4:30 a.m., and by rush hour 3 inches were on the ground and a bitter, 40 mph wind was blowing from the northeast.

The Weather Service had predicted 6 to 12 inches, but the lower figure was easily surpassed by noon, and in some places the white stuff was piling up at the rate of 3 inches an hour.

After ambling across country and then up the East Coast, the storm squatted at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and let everyone know who -- or what -- was in charge.

"The city has surrendered," one man complained while looking out of the window of a downtown coffee shop.

Indeed, it had.

Bus service slowed, then stopped.

Stalled cars littered the Beltway at weird angles, as snowplows chugged past on an uphill journey.

Some hardy night-shift employees of The Sun walked to work from as far away as Catonsville, while day-shift workers for businesses all over the city wondered how they were going to get home.

Downtown hotels were jammed with requests for reservations, and before the bitter night was out, people were sleeping four or more to a room, while others partied all night in their offices. Restaurants ran out of food.

The storm tapered off after 16 hours of steady snowfall, and by 9:30 p.m. it was down to a few feathery flakes and an icy wind.

Parked cars were left invisible, buried beneath hard-crusted, swirled drifts. Side streets in many metropolitan communities went unplowed for days -- resulting occasionally in neighbors teaming up to shovel enough space to drive through.

Drifts in places reached -- even hid -- low first-floor windows. For more than a few homeowners, "digging out" became an exhausting experience.

Officially speaking, the Blizzard of '83 dropped 22.8 inches of snow on Baltimore, making it the second worst snowstorm in Baltimore since 1871, when the Weather Service began keeping records of such matters.

"I worked that storm," recalled Fred Davis, meteorologist in charge of the Weather Service bureau at Baltimore-Washington International. "The temperatures weren't quite cold enough for the definition of a true blizzard, but it was close enough."

The largest snowstorm in recorded Baltimore history occurred on Jan. 27, 1922, when 24.7 inches of snow fell. "That was called the Knickerbocker storm, because it also plastered New York State," Mr. Davis said.

There was a postscript of note on the day after the Blizzard of '83. Roger Fink and Sandra Gault were to be married at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Ruxton, but the trip from Stoneleigh appeared impossible.

"I got the next-door neighbor, who had a four-wheel drive, to go get a minister friend of mine and bring her to Stoneleigh," said Mr. Fink, a member of the psychology department at Towson State University. "The only guests who could attend were the ones who could walk there, but we had a wonderful time."

Only one person was reported killed in the 1983 storm, a man who walked in front of a skidding car, but there was another tragic consequence. The 605-foot coal carrier Marine Electric went down off Ocean City with the loss of 32 lives.

The storm had covered the East Coast from Richmond to Boston before moving out to sea. A weatherman, asked how such a storm had developed in the middle of a mild winter, said: "Ask the theologians."

The next day was cold, but the city began to recover as a bright sun started to do its job on the mounds of snow.

The snow was gone within a week, except for grimy piles on shopping center parking lots, and the Blizzard of '83 had become a memorable statistic.

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