Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Plight of Winter Wonderland: Part II (a)

By Miriam B. Medina

In part one of this two-part series, we covered the history of winter climate and its effects on early American Society. We traced winter disasters in America up to the blizzard of 1888, which was a devastating natural disaster that particularly caught New York City by surprise. Part two examines that blizzard and its effects on the inhabitants of New York.

New York City was as packed and as lively as ever the week before March 12th, 1888. The streets crawled with people, as the everyday hustle and bustle of the mammoth metropolis raged continuously. Amidst the congestion, of people on the sidewalks and streets were vendors and shoppers, immigrants and natural citizens, visitors and workers alike. The docks were crammed with crates and boxes as workers loaded and unloaded the many ships that stuffed the harbor. In short, the city raced on oblivious to the winter nightmare that was rapidly approaching.

The weather on Sunday, March 11th was unseasonably warm as a heavy downpour of rain flooded the streets of New York. In the meantime, a heavy snowstorm was already prevailing in Washington D.C. and Baltimore. This storm filled with wind and rain began gathering strength as the night continued. The hammering rain changed into sleet and then hail as the temperature began rapidly falling. This was followed by heavy snow and winds of more than 50 miles per hour. This posed a deadly combination for a city that was totally unprepared for a storm of this magnitude. The ravaging storm commenced after midnight on March 12th, attacking all that was in its way for 36 hours up and down the Atlantic coast. On March 12th, the temperature had dropped to 8 degrees as the wind continued to blow with considerable violence, Trees were uprooted, roof tops blown off, windows smashed, telegraph wires weighed down by ice snapped like match sticks, poles knocked over and there was also extensive damage to the New York harbor. The Stock Exchange was quite deserted because of the storm. No matter how fast and hard the men worked at shoveling the mess, attempts to remove the snow were unsuccessful.

Scores of people risked braving the blizzard to get to and from their jobs, struggling through the snow, vainly fighting against piercing winds and stinging sleet, but they made no headway and ended up finding refuge in some warm place. Those too tired and cold would collapse in the storm, succumbing to death, their tracks and bodies hidden under the towering snowdrifts. Families, distressed, wringing their hands would pace nervously, crying out in despair, as the hours and the days went by yet without a sign of or word from their loved ones. The streets and elevated train tracks were coated with ice, making the roads impassable. The movement of the elevated trains grew slower and slower.

Eventually all forms of transportation came to a complete standstill, leaving commuters stranded, left to fend for themselves. Massive snow drifts blocked entrances to buildings, imprisoning families with an insufficient supply of food, milk, water and fuel as the blizzard continued on into the next day, March 13th, with the temperature dropping to a record low of 6 degrees and then rising to only 12 degrees on March 14th. Most people knew there wasn't anything they could do but wait for the winter storm to pass.

To be continued: Part II (b)

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