Wisconsin January 31, 2019
In 1940, Wisconsin Was Hit With The Worst Blizzard In State History
Most often in Wisconsin, blizzards don’t hit the whole state. Parts of Wisconsin have suffered bigger storms, but in 1940, in a storm that came to be known as the Armistice Day Blizzard, a storm so big that it stretched across Minnesota, Wisconsin and into Illinois and Michigan devastated the Midwest. On November 11 and 12, more than 150 people died in a storm that literally came out of nowhere, dumped a foot of snow, and was accompanied by 50 to 80 mph winds that created 20-foot drifts. This rare November blizzard caught people unaware and is one of the worst storms to ever hit Wisconsin.
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The reason this storm was so deadly is that early in the day it hit, temperatures were in the 50s and 60s. People left their houses in light jackets and without any of the things they'd need to survive the cold, wind and snow. Cold Northern air collided with warm Gulf Coast moisture to create what meteorologists call a "bomb" - or massive drop of air pressure. Winds whipped up above 50 miles per hour and created what were basically hurricane-like conditions.
Trains collided in the white-out, cars were stuck and stranded, and more than 60 men died on Lake Michigan as five boats sank in the storm. Parts of Minnesota saw more than two feet of snow. Temperatures dropped about 40 degrees from the morning to the late afternoon. Folks left for work or school dressed for a warm fall day and were totally unprepared to be outside in the cold winter conditions that arrived.
As it was a warm fall day, duck hunters were out and having a fabulous hunt. Out on boats, they were caught out in the rising winds and struggled to return to shore. Dozens of men were stranded and froze to death as they could not escape the storm and were not dressed or prepared to be in it.
Those who remember the storm talk about the moisture in the air making the cold extra painful and difficult to breathe in. It's a running joke to never leave the house in the winter without a full trunk of winter accessories, but for our grandparents, that was a concept that originated with the Armistice Day Blizzard. Girls only wore skirts at this time and many of them were out this day in light sweaters and bare legs. Getting caught out in this storm taught them to be prepared for anything when it comes to Wisconsin winters.
Cars had to be abandoned and streetcars were stuck. Tow trucks couldn't keep up and families often had to walk home in the wind and snow to get out of the conditions. Many homes were warmed by coal, which was manually added. As it had been warm early in the day, no one was prepared to have their houses warm in this storm. So even when they finally got inside, soaked and freezing cold, it took a long time for their homes to heat enough to warm them. One woman said she cried with how cold she was for hours after getting out of the storm.
This likelihood of another storm like this one is low, though not impossible. A similar drop in pressure on Halloween in 1991 created another super storm. Though technology and knowledge had advanced 50 years between the two storms, in the end, it can be difficult to know or prepared for this kind of crazy storm occurrence.
When people left home on November 21, the forecast was for a small weather change and maybe an inch of snow overnight. Meteorologists grossly underestimated the storm and misread the situation. According to Wikipedia, "Prior to this event, all of the weather forecasts for the region originated in Chicago. After the failure to provide an accurate forecast for this blizzard, forecasting responsibilities were expanded to include 24-hour coverage and more forecasting offices were created, yielding more accurate local forecasts." It's a shame that it took such a tragic storm to make these changes that likely saved lives in the future.
We’ve had our fair share of winter storms here in Wisconsin.
Read about 12 of the worst right here.