Last month, as Winter Storm Nemo bore down on the East Coast, New Yorkers wearily set about the now-familiar ritual of preparing for power outages and other discomforts. Fortunately, Nemo, while serious, didn’t hit the city too hard; Boston and upper New England bore the brunt of it. New Yorkers must have felt they were owed one, as it hadn’t been four months since Sandy, the catastrophic storm whose effects still reverberate and may shape policy for years to come. At least one earlier storm had that effect. Marking an anniversary tomorrow, it even helped spur the construction of the New York subway.

This was the Great Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Great White Hurricane, which descended on New York 125 years ago with the stealth of a sneak attack and the force of a bomb. Starting out as rain on Sunday, March 11, by midnight, March 12, it had evolved into a furious snow, with conditions that gave meaning to the word “blizzard”: minimal visibility and whipping winds blowing snow crystals around that felt like shards of glass. By Monday morning, the city was under full assault. The storm would drop 21 inches of snow in all.

In 1888, people traveled to work on foot or via horse cars and elevated trains. The horse cars ground to a halt; the trains broke down and left thousands stranded and shivering, some for days, while others were rescued with ladders. City streets were engulfed by massive snowdrifts, some containing dead horses or people. The storm brought down the city’s aboveground electric wires and essentially wiped out telegraph communication. “New York is as remote from us as Tokio,” an Albany newspaper proclaimed. The communication and transit shutdown led to critical shortages, especially for coal and milk.

The storm was so ferocious it even killed the irascible Roscoe Conkling, the former New York senator then in private legal practice. Conkling was a fitness buff who exercised every morning with dumbbells and dabbled in boxing. He scoffed at his colleagues’ warnings and insisted on walking to the New York Club on 25th Street from his downtown office. When he reached the club hours later, after having been nearly paralyzed in a snowdrift, he collapsed. A month later, he was dead.

Conkling wasn’t the only New Yorker ill-advisedly braving the elements. The storm’s death toll—an estimated 400 people in the northeast, 200 in New York—owed in part to the late nineteenth-century work ethic. You had to go to work. If you didn’t, you might lose your job. Schoolkids had the same mentality; a dozen waited outside one city school for an hour until a lone teacher arrived and commanded them to go home. City residents told of three- or four-hour journeys to get to work, if they got there at all. Often finding no one else there, they turned around. Not everyone made it back.

The New York World called March 12, 1888, “probably the most memorable day known to the present generation”—so memorable that survivors later created the Society of Blizzard Men (eventually joined by the Blizzard Ladies) to mark anniversaries and share stories. Over a thousand of their letters are on file at the New-York Historical Society. Like survivors of other ordeals—shipwrecks, wars, hard times—the Blizzard Men and Ladies seemed to feel some nostalgia for the experience. People pulled together; acts of courage and kindness were widespread; children had the adventure of their lives.

Had more people known what they were in for, there would have been fewer such adventures. Weather prediction was relatively primitive in 1888, especially in the northeast, where conditions at sea played such an important role. “The jet stream was not yet understood, nor was it possible to know what was going on at very high altitudes,” writes Mary Cable in The Blizzard of ’88. The forerunner to the National Weather Service, the United States Weather Service, had been established only in 1870. Its New York bureau sat atop the eight-story Equitable Life Assurance Building, then one of the tallest structures in the city. Extended forecasts, Doppler radar, and computer models were far in the future.

Those tools were all available 20 years ago this month, when a nor’easter called the Storm of the Century hit the eastern United States, shutting down every major airport at some point. It arrived in New York on March 13, just missing the anniversary of the Great Blizzard. For the city, the one-foot snowfall was manageable, but other areas, including in the South, got much more. The storm’s real calling cards were its high winds—it generated multiple tornadoes, especially in Florida—and its almost incomprehensible size: it cut a path from Canada through 26 states (about 40 percent of the American population) and down to Cuba. It killed at least 270 people and knocked out power for approximately 10 million. “No winter storm so intense has ever affected so vast an area inhabited by so many Americans,” the New York Times declared. It was “a monster with the heart of a blizzard and the soul of a hurricane.”

Things could have been worse. The Storm of the Century marked the first time that the National Weather Service could predict a storm’s severity five days in advance. Two days out, official blizzard warnings were issued. It’s reasonable to assume that without this early notice, the death toll would have been much higher.

In places like Chattanooga and Birmingham, which barely get snow, the 1993 storm occupies a special place in local history; in New York, not so much. For one thing, the storm played second fiddle to the first World Trade Center attack, which had taken place two weeks earlier. Further, Gotham has had more memorable winter storms than the Storm of the Century. A February 2006 snowstorm eclipsed the city’s snowfall record with 26.9 inches, beating 1947’s former champ by half an inch, and a December 2010 monster left the city disabled with snow-clogged streets, as the Bloomberg administration uncharacteristically floundered.

Though Sandy is sure to occupy a place someday in the New-York Historical Society, it’s too early to say whether we’ll ever see a Society of Sandy Men and Women. So far, Sandy seems like a storm without consolations. Then again, the Great Blizzard’s commemorators didn’t come together until decades later. By then, they looked back on the storm as “a great communal adventure,” acknowledging its “tragic side” while maintaining that it “curiously left in its wake mainly good will.” For them, the storm transcended disaster and came to symbolize “all that was best in the ‘good old days.’”

Cable suggests that the survivors’ affection for the Great Blizzard had less to do with the storm than with their longing for the optimism of what some called the Age of Confidence. They may also have remembered that the storm had positive aftereffects, pushing the city to modernize its transportation and communication systems. As the exasperated New York Times editorialized before the snow had stopped falling: “Now, two things are tolerably certain—that a system of a really rapid transit which cannot be made inoperative by storms must be straightway devised and as speedily as possible constructed, and that all the electric wires—telegraph, telephone, fire alarms, and illuminating—must be put under ground without any delay.” These things were accomplished. In 1904, the New York subway opened.

Perhaps some of the reverence for the storm also had to do with its surprise arrival, which lent it a retrospective quality of mystery. Today, we don’t much like surprises; they usually mean someone should be fired. With our computer models and satellites, we see storms not as mysteries but as problems to solve through superior information—a justifiable confidence, for the most part, though one that easily slides into hubris, obscuring the nagging reminders that we’re living on borrowed time. If we can no longer reach for the wide-eyed wonder of 1888, we can settle for relief. Though the Blizzard Men and Ladies didn’t say so, the best way to become nostalgic is to survive.

Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)


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