Blizzard follows 'classic' pattern From Louisiana rains to Northeast snowfall, path was predictable

Blizzard Of 1996

Snowed under

January 08, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The blizzard that shut down Baltimore started Friday as rain in New Orleans.

Winds that reached 200 mph in the upper atmosphere pushed the storm through the South and into the Northeast. Nearly 30 inches of snow fell in one North Carolina county.

By 10 p.m. yesterday, 14.8 inches of snow had fallen in Baltimore. Nearly 18 inches had fallen in Pasadena and Columbia, and Owings Mills had 22 inches. Although the snow appeared to have tapered off at 7 p.m., area forecasters said more would fall, with final accumulations in Baltimore expected between 16 and 18 inches.

Strong winds today are expected to produce blinding snow squalls and temperatures dipping as low as 10 degrees. Partly cloudy conditions are predicted for the rest of the week, but a storm developing out west could bring more snow to Baltimore by Thursday or Friday.

In New Orleans, where yesterday's blizzard began, forecasters knew last week that Baltimore and the rest of the East Coast north of the Carolinas might be in for trouble. "We just saw it coming and we were glad that we're not up on the Atlantic seacoast," said a relieved Robert Ricks, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in New Orleans.

He said the storm sparked a wide range of temperature readings Louisiana on Saturday -- a balmy 62 degrees in New Orleans and 37 in Shreveport, about 300 miles to the north, which got a dusting of snow.

The storm then stalled over the Atlantic Ocean, just off Cape Hatteras, N.C., where it was buffeted by two areas of moisture on the east and west, and arctic temperatures from above, causing temperatures to dip into the teens and single digits.

'A classic setup'

"A lot of moisture was channeled into the area and, coupled with the cold, it brought the snow," said Dave Thede, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sterling, Va. "It followed the path of the jet stream. It is a classic setup for us to get a significant snowfall."

Blizzard warnings were posted for parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Washington, and Maryland, with heavy snow warnings in West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia and Kentucky. Snow fell as far west as St. Louis and hit the southern part of New England last night.

Scott Wendt, meteorologist for Weather Central Inc., in Madison, Wis., said the blizzard began over the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans as part of a fragmented storm that had dumped snow on the Rocky Mountains last week.

"It came up from the west, broke up and redeveloped over the Gulf Coast, which is where it really started to get going," Mr. Wendt said. Pushed by winds at 35,000 feet, the storm quickly moved northeastward, producing rain, snow and sleet over the Mississippi and Ohio valleys.

At the storm center in Baltimore, Bob Marsili, who works for the city Department of Public Works, has been hovering over computers tracking the storm since Tuesday. He watched as it formed over Louisiana and then developed its powerful punch over Georgia on Saturday.

Forecast was on target

"The forecast was pretty accurate for the whole week," Mr. Marsili said. "They were calling for it. It kind of did what everybody had thought it would do."

The only exception was early reports that had the storm going out to sea before it dumped significant snow on the Baltimore- Washington area. "It tracked farther north than expected," Mr. Marsili said, adding that the storm was mostly rain in the South until it hit the cold temperatures, "turning it into a major snow event."

Not everyone, however, thought the snow would come.

"We had some skeptics who thought we would only get a couple of inches," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "When it didn't hit at 8 o'clock Saturday [night], they said, 'See, I told you so.' But we were in touch with people in Virginia and West Virginia and we knew it was coming."

And this week Baltimore could get hit again. "So get ready," Mr. Schmoke said.

Great snows

L * Jan. 27, 1922: The century's record snowfall: 24.7 inches.

* March 29, 1942: The legendary Palm Sunday blizzard: 22 inches.

* Feb. 18-20, 1979: A paralyzing storm bred lawlessness. Losses from looting approached $30 million. Snowfall 22 inches

* Feb. 11-12, 1983: The second-heaviest snowfall on record: 22.8 inches.

* March 13, 1993: More than 16 inches fell, but sleet caused more problems.

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