The Blizzard of Oz

Atlanta, Georgia’s epic snowstorm of January 2011 shut down the city for nearly a week, giving us all a snow holiday. With plenty of food and plenty of warm and all snuggled up at home, it was an enjoyable week. As I looked out over a snow-covered Atlanta, I reminisced about the great Blizzard of 1966 that hit Rochester, New York, when I was a kid. While the snowstorm in Atlanta was epic for the South, it did not hold a candle to the Blizzard of 1966 in New York.

Two weeks after the snow melted in Atlanta, I had to make a trip to Rochester for a family matter. It was the first week of February 2011. The week started out as a typical Rochester winter but the day before I was scheduled to fly out, the airline called and canceled my flight. Apparently they were expecting the mother of all snowstorms and thus the Blizzard of Oz began.

It’s odd having your flight canceled when there’s not a snowflake falling from the sky. Did they cancel my flight for weather that hadn’t happened yet? Did they cancel my flight because cities throughout the Midwest had gotten blasted, and the planes couldn’t get to Rochester in the first place?

The flight to Rochester included a layover in Newark, New Jersey, with the final flight on a De Havilland DHC-8 Dash 8-200 twin-engine turboprop airplane, according to my flight itinerary. The DHC-8-200 allegedly carries up to 39 passengers, but when I counted the seats, there did not appear to be near that many.

I remembered the propellor spinning outside my window, and I thought about flying on such a small airplane back out of Rochester in the thralls of a blizzard. People died on small planes much more often than on big planes, and suddenly I was afraid to fly back home to Georgia. Less than a year earlier, a larger version of the plane I was on had crashed and burned in Buffalo, New York. All passengers and crew were killed.

Waiting for my flight to be rescheduled, and wondering what sort of plane I’d be flying out on, I watched as the snow started falling. I’d just been snowed in for a full week in Atlanta — was it about to happen again in Rochester?

FEMA was calling it the Snowpocalypse. Midwesterners had dubbed it the Blizzard of Oz. The snowstorm left a path of more than 13,000 canceled flights in its wake, and affected more than 30 states. Missouri racked up 18 inches of snow, and for Chicago it was the worst snowfall in 40 years, totaling more than 20 inches. New York City had already racked up 50 inches of snow for the month, more than twice the normal amount, before the Blizzard of Oz even hit. Hurricane force winds blasted some of the affected cities, while temperatures of 30 below zero hit others. A rare type of storm called a Thundersnow, where thunder bellows with the snowfall, made its way across the storm’s path.

The 2,000 mile long storm collapsed buildings under the weight of the snow, and one witness described a collapsing building in Connecticut as a “bomb scene.” Near Boston, an airport hanger collapsed.

There was so much snow that the snow plows couldn’t keep up with it all. A contractor in Albany, New York, commented that the biggest problem was where to put all the snow. The plows have to move it somewhere and the city was full up. In 1966 they could dump the snow into lakes and rivers but in 2011, there were restrictions. Chicago law forbids such dumping without a government permit, and perhaps the law applied to other cities as well. Plowed snow is loaded with pollutants such as road salt, gasolene, motor oil and other chemicals, which are toxic to fish and other marine life.

In the middle of all that snow were the weary travelers like me, just trying to get back home. I spent hours on the phone attempting to get through to the airline, whose customer service reps were swamped with calls. I estimated there to be over half a million displaced travelers.

I was one of the lucky ones, and I managed to find a flight back to Atlanta. As I waited at the airport, I could hear pilots and flight attendants talking amongst themselves. Several New York airports had already shut down, but Rochester was sitting in a donut hole with a few planes still flying.

The flight boards showed more than half of the flights out of Rochester as canceled. I could hear the desk clerk telling someone that they were going to TRY to get our flight out, but she couldn’t promise we’d make it out that day. We all knew that our flight could be canceled as so many of the others had been, and we were all on edge, watching out the window at the falling snow. Some of us had already been canceled once and this was the replacement flight.

Finally our plane arrived and the passengers departed. I felt sorry for those who were coming into the Blizzard of Oz. The airline kept delaying our boarding and everyone was antsy. Somehow, the Powers That Be were looking kindly down on the city of Rochester, because finally we boarded and after a serious de-icing, we took off into the gloomy skies.

Visibility was zero. We were flying in what appeared to be a white-out and you couldn’t see anything, including the ground. I hoped we had a really good pilot. We flew through a solid grey mass higher and higher until finally we burst upwards out of the storm and into clear skies above. You could see the dense cloud cover below. Above the storm was sunshine and clear blue skies. It was strange to encounter such distinct layers: the heavy snow and dense cloud cover hugging the Earth, while we flew in the clear blue skies overhead. The fear melted away and I relaxed, confident that we’d passed through the worst of the storm, and that Atlanta waited on the blue horizon.

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