Winter doesn’t officially begin until late December, but it seems that Old Man Winter doesn’t own a calendar, because some of the deadliest blizzards in U.S. history have struck during the month of November.
One of the worst November storms of the last century fell on November 11, 1940, during the Armistice Day holiday (which is now recognized as Veteran’s Day). On a day set aside for celebrating the end of a devastating World War, the weather was anything but peaceful across the Midwestern United States, as a cyclonic blizzard cut a swath 1000 miles wide through the center of the country, from Kansas to Michigan, blanketing the region in more than two feet of snow.
To make matters worse, the storm caught the region by surprise. At that time, forecasts for the entire Midwestern region came out of Chicago, and no inclement weather was predicted. In fact, the morning of November 11 was unseasonably warm, with temperatures in the 60s throughout the area. Within a very short period of time, though, an intense low-pressure system moved in, pulling in and intermingling both frigid arctic air from northern Canada and moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. The resultant blizzard dropped 27” of snow in many areas, with whipping winds that created 20-foot drifts. Temperatures plunged into the single digits within a matter of hours.
The storm caused more than $2 million in damage and claimed approximately 150 lives, including 49 Minnesotan duck hunters who perished on the Mississippi River. The under-dressed hunters, who set out into comparatively balmy conditions in the morning, were not prepared to survive the deep snow, punishing winds, bitter temperatures, or five foot river swells that the storm dished out, and they froze to death by the dozens on the tiny islands that dot the length of the river. Another 66 lives were lost on freighters and other boats caught unawares in the waters of Lake Michigan when the storm hit. A storm-related train collision in Watkins, Minnesota, claimed two additional lives, injuring many others.
Farmers in the region also took a hit, as 1.5 million turkeys, intended for Thanksgiving tables, perished from exposure.
The only upside to the storm was that the failure of regional weather agencies to predict it led to improvements in forecasting, with an increase in attention and resources going to the creation of local weather bureaus. In that sense, we owe our ability to accurately predict major events, like the Hurricane Sandy, which recently pummeled the Eastern U.S., to the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940.