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This Month in Climate History: 1996 Eastern Washington Ice Storm

Photo of November 19, 1996 ice accumulation in Spokane, Washington

November 19, 1996 ice accumulation in Spokane, Washington. Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service office in Spokane.

It began as just another drizzly day in Spokane, Washington, but by its end, November 19, 1996, produced one of the region’s worst ice storms in 60 years.

With an average elevation over 1,800 feet, Spokane is located on the edge of the Columbia Basin in eastern Washington State. Its location, between the Cascades Range to the west and Rocky Mountains to the east and north, allows cold air to settle into the basin, frequently creating prime conditions for winter weather.

Before the freezing rain hit on November 19, 1996, there was already between two and four inches of snow on the ground around the city. Later that day, up to an inch and a half of freezing rain fell, coating trees, roads, buildings, vehicles, and power lines in a dense slippery glaze. The official weather station for the city at Spokane International Airport recorded a high temperature of only 33°F and 1.24 inches of precipitation, which fell in the form of rain, freezing rain, freezing drizzle, snow, and mist. The station also reported freezing fog in the city that day.

Trees came crashing down everywhere under the immense weight of the ice. The mayor of Spokane declared a state of emergency as over half the city’s residents lost electricity—their worst power outage in 108 years. Three days after the storm, 100,000 people in the surrounding county were without power, and six days after the storm, 20,000 were still without power. Some area residents were without electricity for up to two weeks following the record-breaking storm.

Throughout the devastating ice storm and its aftermath, four people lost their lives in and around Spokane and Kootenai counties, and total damages were estimated at over $22 million in 1996 dollars—$33 million in 2013 dollars. This ice storm remains one of the most severe on record for the area.

Read more about the November 19, 1996, Ice Storm from the National Weather Service office in Spokane, Washington. Or see the November 1996 Spokane, Washington, Local Climatological Data publication.