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5 devastating New Year’s storms in US history

Transportation, infrastructure disruptions from Plains to South

Kentucky ice storm in late January 2009. (Photo: Flickr/frankieleon CC BY 2.0)

Winter storms are notorious for stranding drivers on the road or passengers at airports. Adding insult to injury is when these storms strike during the holidays. These are five of the worst winter storms to hit the U.S. on or around New Year’s Day.

1949 Great Plains blizzard

The blizzard of 1949 paralyzed the Great Plains for months, making it one of the worst winter storms in the region’s history. The first storm raged from Jan. 2-5, producing heavy snowfall, strong winds and bitter cold. Subsequent storms through mid-February produced insurmountable snowdrifts that stranded entire towns. Many roads and railroads were shut down, so airplanes had to drop food and medical supplies into isolated areas.


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Wind gusts exceeded 70 mph, and January 1949 became the snowiest January on record for many observing stations in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. Totals topped 40 inches in some spots.

Downtown Rapid City, South Dakota, after the January 1949 blizzard. (Photo: Rapid City Journal)

President Harry Truman declared the region a disaster zone. The initial storm killed about 40 people across Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming and more than 150,000 cattle and sheep.

Fred H. McNally, the Rapid City Weather Bureau Office meteorologist in charge at the time, wrote, “This is rated as the most severe blizzard in Rapid City history, considering wind, snow and temperature factors.”


1961 Idaho ice storm

A massive storm hit parts of North America in early 1961, cocooning northern Idaho in ice from Jan. 1 to 3. The storm produced the thickest ice accumulation on record in the U.S. at 8 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

The ice spread from Grangeville, Idaho, to the Canada-U.S. border, a distance of about 200 miles. The combination of dense fog, subfreezing temperatures and occasional freezing rain led to the heavy ice accretions. Catastrophic damage to trees, as well as electrical and utility lines, resulted in widespread power outages.

1978 Texas ice storm

Texas has been hit by many ice storms. Six inches of ice accumulated in the northwestern part of the state from Jan. 22 to 24, 1940, according to Weather Underground’s Christopher Burt.

However, the worst ice storm in the Lone Star State since the late 1940s devastated many areas on New Year’s Eve 1978. It produced ice up to 2 inches thick in a 100 mile-wide swath from Paris to just west of Waco.

Daily weather map from the Dec. 31, 1978, north Texas ice storm. (Image: NOAA)

The storm also hit parts of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, with temperatures falling to almost 10 degrees by the time it ended.

Here are a few more facts about this storm:

  • 2,000 residents were treated for injuries from vehicle accidents, falls and frostbite.
  • Nearly 300,000 Dallas County customers lost power for two days. Customers in other impacted areas lost power for up to 10 days.
  • $14 million in damage was reported in Dallas County.

1996 mid-Atlantic nor’easter

This storm bombarded the mid-Atlantic with three days of heavy, wet snow just a few days after the new year. Washington and parts of Maryland were slammed with up to 25 inches of snowfall Jan. 6-8, while the mountains of Maryland and West Virginia received up to 48 inches. Philadelphia had a whopping 30 inches, the most from any single snowstorm on record for the city.

Deep snow in Baltimore after an early January 1996 nor’easter. (Photo: Robert Shawver)

Despite people often calling it the “blizzard of 1996,” only two observing sites in the region — Trenton-Mercer Airport (ICAO code: TTN) and Morristown Municipal Airport (ICAO code: MMU), both in New Jersey — recorded true blizzard conditions, according to the NWS definition. The highest gust was 63 mph, recorded at Morristown.

The storm killed 154 people across the region. Not long after the storm ended, temperatures warmed quickly and the huge snowmelt resulted in significant flooding.

2002-03 double-barreled nor’easters

Unprecedented back-to-back snowstorms from late 2002 to early 2003 buried parts of the Northeast during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Each storm produced more than 20 inches of snow in many places, including Albany, New York.


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The Christmas storm produced 21 inches of snowfall in Albany, while portions of New England received 16 inches. Blowing snow and whiteout conditions led to a shutdown of the New York State Thruway (Interstate 90) from Catskill to Syracuse, a stretch of 175 miles. Many people were stranded in the Albany International Airport (ICAO code: ALB) on Christmas night due to flight cancellations.

The second storm, Jan. 3-4, also dumped nearly 21 inches of snowfall in Albany. It was the first time since 1887-88 that two storms of more than 20 inches each were recorded at Albany during the same winter. The second snowstorm combined with ice leftover from freezing rain on Jan. 1-2, bringing down trees and knocking out power in many areas.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.