Worried About the Polar Vortex? A Blizzard 18 Years Ago Today Was Worse

Temperatures across the country are dipping to dangerous lows Monday night. This time in 1996, they came with a deadly onslaught of snow.

Frozen leaves in the Lafayette Park in front of the White House.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Jan. 6, 2014, 8:46 a.m.

Bundle up, Wash­ing­ton. It’s go­ing to be a cold night.

An arc­tic air mass, which some met­eor­o­lo­gists are call­ing a “po­lar vor­tex,” is cur­rently hov­er­ing over much of the coun­try, and it is as scary as it sounds. As many as 140 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans are feel­ing be­low-freez­ing tem­per­at­ures and wind­chills. Here, the tem­per­at­ure will dip from a balmy 40 de­grees dur­ing the day to a fri­gid 8 at night.

The po­lar vor­tex calls to mind an­oth­er his­tor­ic weath­er pat­tern, one that began brew­ing on this day 18 years ago: the Bliz­zard of 1996.

Start­ing Jan. 6 that year, a severe nor’east­er sacked every city in the North­east with 17 to 30 inches of snow in 1996. Cold air from Canada rushed south to the United States, col­lid­ing with warm winds rising up from the Gulf of Mex­ico to cre­ate a dan­ger­ous swirl of snow and wind. In D.C., snow began fall­ing that Sat­urday night, reach­ing 15 inches in the metro area and 20 inches in the west­ern sub­urbs in just 24 hours. Three days later, a fresh storm brought more heavy snow. Three days after that, a third storm dropped 5 to 12 inches on the already-blanketed re­gion.

Metro rails froze, leav­ing 100 pas­sen­gers stuck for five hours on a train near Takoma Park. Re­agan Na­tion­al and Dulles In­ter­na­tion­al air­ports sat closed, covered in 17 inches and 25 inches of snow, re­spect­ively. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment shut down, and Pres­id­ent Clin­ton de­clared the cap­it­al and nine states dis­aster areas. In Wash­ing­ton, schools and busi­nesses only re­opened on Jan. 16, a full 10 days after the first flur­ries began.

The bliz­zard led to 154 deaths and more than $1 bil­lion in dam­age.

Monday night’s and Tues­day’s freez­ing cold in Wash­ing­ton, while mem­or­able, is thank­fully tem­por­ary, with tem­per­at­ures ex­pec­ted to rise above freez­ing later in the week.

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