Winter! If you live in or near Chicago, winter always means ice and snow. However, nothing can compare to the snowstorms of the winters of 1967, 1979, 1999, and 2011. In each of those snowstorms, more than twenty inches of snow fell. Cars were buried in the drifts. Streets were impassible. Trains provided limited service. Airports were shut down.
The Chicago Blizzard of 1967
When the snowstorm began in January of 1967, the weathermen were predicting four inches of snow. But it kept snowing for two days. By the time the snow stopped falling, twenty-three inches of snow lay on the ground. It was the largest single snowfall in the city’s history.
Thousands of people were stranded at work, in schools, in buses, at the airport. Approximately 50,000 abandoned cars and 800 Chicago Transit Authority buses clogged the streets and expressways. Looters broke store windows and stole merchandise.
Major Richard J. Daley, a powerful mayor who served five terms, told residents that the city plows would clear the arterial streets first and then the side streets. He appealed to the residents to help by shoveling out the cars abandoned in the middle of the streets so the plows could come through. As was tradition in residential areas, each resident shoveled out his own car and put a chair or two to mark his parking space as reserved.
The Blizzard of 1979
The blizzard of 1979, one of the worst snowstorms in Chicago’s history, affected northern Illinois and northwest Indiana as well. As in the blizzard of 1967, weather forecasters had predicted only two to four inches of snow. However, twenty-one inches of snow fell in two days. Wind gusts reached thirty-nine miles per hour. The total amount of snow on the ground by the end of the day on January 14, 1979 was twenty-nine inches.
Wikipedia’s article called “1979 Chicago Blizzard” describes the scene: “O’Hare Airport was closed and all flights grounded for 96 hours from January 13 to the 15. The cold weather and snowfall throughout the rest of January and February resulted in frozen tracks throughout the Chicago ‘L’ system. At that time, commuters crowded onto CTA buses, quickly overwhelming capacity, resulting in bus commutes usually taking 30 to 45 minutes taking up to several hours. To avoid huge snowdrifts in the streets, the overcrowded buses were obliged to take numerous detours, adding additional time to the commute.”
Mayor Michael Bilandic, who was running for re-election, lost to Jane Byrne. Part of his loss can be attributed to his administration’s poor response to the storm. Read “How the Blizzard of 1979 Cost the Election for Michael Bilandic” at http://www.chicagomag/com.
The North American Blizzard of 1999
A strong winter snowstorm struck the Midwestern states and portions of eastern Canada from January 2 through January 4, 1999. States which were hardest hit were Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio. Ontario and Quebec also received large amounts of snow. Chicago received a recorded 21.6 inches of snow.
The National Weather Service rated this storm as the second worst blizzard to hit Chicago in the 20th century. The Blizzard of 1967 was rated as the worst. Immediately following the snowstorm, temperatures dropped to -20 degrees Fahrenheit, a record low temperature in Chicago.
The impact of the storm was significant. Lake Shore Drive in Chicago was closed for the first time ever. Cars were left abandoned in the snow. Airports shut down. Highways were impassable. Rail service was halted or delayed.
Mayor Richard M. Daley, the son of the former mayor Richard J. Daley, reminded the city’s residents that this was a natural disaster. He urged citizens to help the city crews by digging out abandoned cars and shoveling sidewalks. Richard M. Daley was re-elected.
The 2011 Groundhog Day Blizzard
A powerful and historic winter storm hit the North American continent January 31—February 2, 2011. The storm, which was estimated to affect 100 million people in the United States, brought cold air, heavy snowfall, blowing snow, and mixed precipitation. Thundersnow was recorded in downtown Chicago. A total of 21.1 inches of snow fell in Chicago during the blizzard. Winds of over 60 miles per hour were recorded during the blizzard.
There were numerous flight cancellations, airport closures, road closures, power outages, school closures, and business closures. Roofs collapsed because of the weight of the snow. Again, vehicles were stranded on Lake Shore Drive.
Mayor Richard M. Daley, who had been in office since 1989, did not seek a seventh term as mayor. On February 22, 2011, Rahm Emanuel was elected Mayor of Chicago.
To see a newsreel about the blizzard of 1967, go to Worst Blizzard in Chicago History, January 26, 1967 Universal Newsreel January 31, 1967. To see footage of the blizzards of 1967, 1979, and 1999 and commentary about the political impact of the blizzards, click on Chicago Blizzards VOA Television at the right of the screen.
—By Karen Centowski