Fear and trembling: Remembering the Great Storm of 1975

It snowed today in Nebraska — a lot. Here in south central Nebraska (and I’ve lived here since 1994) we don’t get a lot of snow. At least, not in the way I remember growing up in southwestern Minnesota. It seemed like we always had more snow when I was a kid. It would start in late October or early November and there was enough to go sledding down big hills or to build tunnels around our yards or forts for snow fights. We spent a lot of time outdoors because, frankly, there wasn’t a lot to do indoors except maybe get on my mom’s nerves, which was pretty easy to do when you’re a rambunctious kid and you have three channels to choose from — four if you count PBS, but nobody did.

And, when thinking about snow like I am today, my mind always goes back to the big blizzard of 1975. The one that started on Jan. 10 and kept us snowbound in our house for three days without power. My family laughs at me because I recount this episode by talking about all of my family sleeping with all our clothes (and coats) on in one bed to stay warm and eating cold peaches by candlelight. The cold peaches part of the story always brings laughter, as if there were another way to eat peaches (peach pie, I suppose, but the point is lost on my family as they dissolve into laughter).

While anyone can be suspicious of an older person (or a not-so-old person in my case) when they start to wax nostalgic about big storms of the past, my advantage is that I have weather history to back up my stories of just how bad it was. It was bad. The snow came fast and hard and then it just blew furiously for days. We lost all power (as did our entire little town) early on and no one was able to go anywhere. One of my sisters, driven by cabin fever and a loathing for little kids I’m sure, decided she would rather spend the blizzard with one of her high school friends. I never did quite understand this since the friend she chose happened to be from a family of 18 kids. Miraculously, she managed to make her way to her friend’s house though she was literally snow blind almost immediately upon leaving our house.

How bad was it? Try out these facts and shudder:

Winds were blowing at 90 mph in Iowa during the blizzard. North Dakota and South Dakota were stung with wind chills of -80ºF.

The snow began falling on Friday, January 10 and continued for the next two days. Snowfall of a foot or more was common from Nebraska to Minnesota, with a high amount of 27 inches in Riverton, Minn. The heaviest snow fell to the west of the low pressure center, which tracked from northeast Iowa through central Minnesota up to Lake Superior. Sustained winds of 30 – 50 mph with gusts from 70 – 90 mph produced snowdrifts up to 20 feet  in some locations. Some roads were closed for up to 11 days.

Sioux Falls, S.D., saw visibilities of below one-quarter mile for 24 straight hours, and just east of Sioux Falls a 2,000-foot broadcast tower collapsed under the storm’s fury. In Willmar, Minnesota, 168 passengers were trapped in a stranded train for hours, unable to walk to shelter because of dangerously low wind chills. In Omaha, Neb., a foot of snow fell, Sioux Falls saw 7 inches, Duluth, Minn., saw 8 inches, and International Falls, Minn., saw 24 inches.

Record low pressures were recorded in communities in Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin, with a low of 28.55 in  in Duluth, Minn. In all, approximately 58 people died from effects of the blizzard and over 100,000 farm animals were lost. The combination of snowfall totals, wind velocities, and cold temperatures made this one of the worst blizzards the Upper Midwest has experienced.

It is a fearsome thing to see weather like that. Days like this in Nebraska, when the snow falls steadily and the wind blows hard, take me back to those days. We are all so utterly small and helpless before the mighty hand of God.

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