Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Halloween Blizzard of 1991: Mother Nature's Trick (Not Treat!)

Jack-o-lanterns were blanketed by snow
(courtesy Pioneer Press)
No one expected the record-breaking amount of snow that fell across the state over just a few days during the Halloween blizzard of 1991. After all, temperatures had been unseasonably warm (in the mid- to upper-60’s) on October 29.

But by the time kids were ready to trick or treat, at least half a foot of snow had blanketed the state. Within just a few days, 36.9 inches landed in Duluth and 28.4 inches in the Twin Cities—and a swath of at least one to two feet covered the entire state.

When it was over, the storm had caused millions of dollars of damage across the Upper Midwest. However, Minnesota cities escaped largely unscathed. The League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust received less than $75,000 in claims (including ice damage, a roof collapse caused by the snow, and a slew of auto losses to city cars).

That is likely thanks in large part to public works employees across the state, who toiled non-stop when surprised by this monster storm. On the eve of the anniversary of this historic event, here are some memories from those workers who were on the front lines 22 years ago...

Costumes were covered by winter jackets
(courtesy of Eric Miller, Pioneer Press)
Little did we know
“I had only been working for the city one year when this took place. I remember that it started out being a nice fall day, and we were pouring concrete sidewalks. They had been talking about some snow coming, but most people felt that it would melt on contact since the pavement temperatures were so warm. Little did we know! Later that afternoon we were plowing snow on the main arterials, and it just kept coming. Day two of plowing I was amazed to turn down residential roads that didn’t have one car that had attempted to drive down the road in the last two days. Just a sea of white and no sign of life other than families huddled inside their homes watching out the front window as I went by, just thankful to see a plow. The day the storm started we didn’t have all of our plow trucks ready, which sent us scrambling—so to this day we have all of our plow equipment mounted by the end of October because of this event.”
-Ken Frosig, Street Maintenance Supervisor, City of Bloomington

Rain quickly turned to snow
Stuck cars were a sight all over the state
(courtesy of Chris Polydoroff - Pioneer Press)
“I remember that day like it was yesterday. Rain quickly turned to snow. We have a two-man crew, and my colleague who lived in the country got snowed in. So I was plowing the city streets by myself. I started at 1 a.m. and plowed until 7 p.m. the following night. Vehicles were all over, stuck. Emergency routes were plugged up. The forecast had said 6-7 inches, and we ended up with 23.5 inches. But because of better equipment, what used to take 12-16 hours to plow would now take only about 5 hours.”
-Bud Ranta, Maintenance Supervisor, City of Cook

 The high winds kept blowing the streets shut again
“We had two phone lines at that time, and we were getting so many calls that you couldn’t call out on either of the lines. If you picked up the phone, somebody was on it calling us. The high winds kept blowing the streets shut again in the open areas. There were so many vehicles stuck that there were streets we couldn’t plow. Plow operators had to be extremely careful because there so many vehicles completely covered with snow.”
-Steve Nauer, Street Maintenance Superintendent, City of Brooklyn Park

Traveling by skis or foot was sometimes fastest
(courtesy of Joe Oden - Pioneer Press)
The storm taught me to be ready
"I remember the storm well. I started in 1986, so looking back I was still considered the new kid on the block by some. I recall the forecast for snow in October thinking it couldn’t be too serious, but decided to have the crews hook up all our snow removal equipment and test it so it was operational. Little did we know the next day we would be plowing snow. This storm taught me to be ready. “
-Jeff Davies, Public Works Director, City of Grand Rapids 

I thought that day would never end

“It was like being in hell that day. I knew I would not see home for a few days because we had a lot of work to do to keep the streets open for the safety of the people who live in this city. When it started snowing, it just would not stop. It got heavier and heavier every hour that went by that day. I thought that day would never end. We worked on the roads around the clock for days after to try and get them back in good driving condition. There were no days off for anyone that month. That storm almost shut this city down. At times we had to go in front of the emergency vehicles to get them were they were going. When we were out plowing the city streets, the people were so happy to see us coming they came out with coffee and some goodies for us. We would work around the clock again today if we had to, to keep this city from shutting down. It’s all about pride of the city workers that comes into play.”
-Douglas M. Drusch, Public Works Supervisor III, City of St. Paul 

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