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January 1999 Blizzard


Stanley A. Changnon (Midwest Climate Center)

     A major blizzard struck portions of the Midwest on January 1-3, 1999.  The storm produced
22 inches of snow in Chicago and was rated by the NWS as the second worst blizzard of the 20th
century, ranking behind the blizzard in January 1967.  Soon after the snow ended, record low
temperatures occurred with values of -20 degrees or lower in parts of Illinois and surrounding states
on January 3 and 4.  The areas with the heaviest snows, 15 inches or more, included Illinois (central
and north), Wisconsin (southern), Indiana (central and north), Michigan (southern), and Ohio

     Estimates of losses and recovery costs are between $0.3 and $0.4 billion with 73 dead as a
result of the storm.  The governor of Illinois declared the entire state a disaster area on January 4,
and on January 20, President Clinton declared 45 Illinois counties disaster areas (half the state) and
subject to receiving federal relief.  Areas of Indiana were also declared disaster areas.

 Any such large-scale record winter storm creates numerous serious impacts on human life and
property.  Many of the worst impacts were associated with the storm's effects on transportation.
Every form of Midwestern transportation was either halted and delayed by 2 to 4 days, or greatly
slowed, and transportation problems were the source of many accidents and deaths.   Auto and
train-related deaths totaled 39 with 5 more dead due to snowmobile accidents.

          Railroad trains in the storm's heart were stalled or delayed by 12 to 24 hours, and since
Chicago is the Nation's rail hub, many priority shipments for the East and West Coasts were
delayed, at great expense, by 1 to 4 days.  The suburban train service of Chicago, one of the
nation's finest, was overwhelmed by travelers who were unable to use normal vehicular
transport, and 3 separate train accidents killed 3.  These and many other operational problems
greatly slowed train service for 3 days.

          Major auto accidents involving numerous vehicles occurred on major highways and
interstates, causing more than 2,500 auto and truck accidents.  Snow removal on city streets
buried thousands of cars and driveway entrances, trapping many motorists without
transportation, and it took up to a week after the storm before most vehicles had been
extracted from these man-made snowbanks.  Many traveling motorists became trapped on
highways and thousands were housed in emergency shelters (churches and city buildings) for
1 to 3 nights.

          The storm's impact on commercial aviation was staggering at Chicago and Detroit.
Northwest Airlines reported than more than 1,100 flights were canceled during January 2-4,
and United Airlines canceled 60% of its O'Hare flights during the 2-day storm.  O'Hare
Airport had 300,000 travelers stranded for periods of hours up to 4 days.  Costs were
staggering, in the millions of dollars, and the stress on travelers was immense, particularly
since the storm occurred on the weekend a day after New years Eve.

          Navigation on the major Midwestern rivers was reduced by 50%.  The cold temperatures
during and after the storm created large ice floes on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, and
these limited safe barge movement and the operation of locks and dams.

          Human health was another area of major impacts.  There were 39 known deaths due to
vehicle and train accidents.  Five died in snowmobile accidents, 2 froze to death, and another 32 lost
their lives due to heart attacks resulting from over exertion and mainly snow shoveling.  The
Midwestern total, still considered incomplete, is 73 persons killed.  Study of past major winter storms
in the Midwest show the conditions typically create numerous illnesses with the number afflicted
averaging forty times the number killed.  If this ratio is applied to the January Blizzard of '99, then
nearly 2,800 persons came down with storm-induced illnesses. The storm created a blood shortage
in the nation since the Midwest is the prime source of fresh blood supplies and many donors could
not reach hospitals to give blood

         Cities in the storm's main track experienced enormous problems and costs in achieving snow
removal.  Fortunately, the storm was accurately predicted several days in advance and some cities
such as Chicago made major preparations that lessened the storm's long-term impacts. Most Chicago
streets had been cleared by January 3, whereas other cities with less advance preparation like Detroit,
were still digging out a week after the storm.  It is also important to realize that it had been nearly 20
years since a major winter blizzard had struck the area and complacency coupled with storm inexperience
existed in many locations. However, Chicago was prepared. The city put 850 snow removal trucks on
the streets (240 is the normal number for heavy snow).  The cost of the snow removal and salt in the
Chicago metropolitan area stands at $44 million ($14 million for snow removal at O"Hare Airport) with many
costs yet to be reported. Communities of 100,000 population typically
reported storm costs of $250,000.

         The huge effect on transportation produced major impacts on retail business and school
openings.  Most retailers were closed for 1 to 2 days, and lost business for several days after the
storm, but those selling snow removal equipment topically sold out their supplies. The blocked streets
and country roads led to multi-day school closings throughout the 5-state area where the storm struck.
Even by January 9, a week after the storm, only 47% of the students in Chicago schools were able to attend
classes.  The school closings in the storm area, which ranged from 3 to 7 days, will produce extended
school openings into June.

         Follow-on impacts were also sizable.  Warm weather returned to the Midwest by mid January
and the melting of the deep snow cover began. However, heavy rains with thunderstorms in the heavy
snow areas occurred on January 17 and on 20-22.  This precipitation coupled with above-freezing
temperatures brought new types of weather problems. There was rapid melting. dense fogs, and major flooding.

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