Allegan County News & Union Enterprise Commercial Record Courier-Leader & Flashes

Life as Performance Art

     Every autumn we buy a copy of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, and a bookmarker always gets place at the beginning of the weather prediction section. The writers claim a high measure of accuracy which may or may not be the whole truth.  Each of their regions covers a wide swath of real estate, so it is not hard to be right for at least a portion of it.
     For day to day, or five-day forecasts, like almost everyone else, we turn to radio, television, or internet.  It helps with our planning for the upcoming few days, even if the predictions are about as reliable as the prognostication of that Pennsylvania rodent.
    Weather is important to us, especially when something big and nasty is coming our way. It is more important than deciding whether to work outside today or a few days from now.  This time of the year it always brings to mind stories I heard from The Olds about a few decades ago when hundreds lost their lives.  In addition to being Veteran’s Day, this year is the sixty second anniversary of the Great Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 that swept through the upper Midwest.
   The storm began near Tacoma, Washington on November 7th,  where the high winds took down the world’s third longest suspension bridge,  unaffectionately known as Galloping Gertie.  A four mile per hour breeze would make it waver and wobble. This storm had winds at about 40 miles per hour, and the center portion weakened, collapsed, and took the rest of the bridge with it. And yes, there were people and vehicles on it at the time.
    Over the next few days the storm picked up strength, and by the 10th it was over Iowa. And then it got worse.
   Armistice Day was a national holiday, and many farmers in the Upper Midwest hurried out to their fields to finish picking their corn crop. Others took advantage of the holiday and went to the backwaters of the Mississippi River to hunt for ducks.  In other parts of South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota,  hunters were in search of pheasants.  Nearly all of them thought this would probably be one of the last nice days of autumn.  Many of the survivors of the storm  claimed that they had never seen such huge flocks of game birds flying from the west.  Nearly all of the birds were flying close to the ground, and the hunters ran through their boxes of shells as they bagged their limits. It added additional weight to their boats.  In their excitement, few of them realized that they were trying to out fly the storm.
    On November 11th, Chicagoans woke up to temperatures in the fifties. Soon the temperature began to drop, as did the barometer.  The winds began to rise, and there was rain that began to thicken into sleet and snow.
     The storm strengthened, came across Lake Michigan, and slapped lower southwest Michigan right in the kisser. The wind, which had been warm and moist coming up from the south, suddenly switched to the west, and before long there was a white-out blizzard.  Some areas received up to two feet of heavy, wet snow, and drifts that were even higher.  Emergency vehicles were unable to get to non-storm related emergencies.
     By the time it was over, roads were closed, business and industry was shot down,  local transportation was very limited, and trains were ordered to pull off the main tracks and onto sidings.  Some made it to the nearest station; others were stranded for several days.  The bodies of some of the duck hunters, were found sitting in their boats days later.  The bodies of farmers out in their fields were not found for upwards of a week.
     Three freighters sank in Lake Michigan and sixty-six sailors last their lives. On land, the casualties were far less than elsewhere in the region. Four individuals in Michigan died as a direct result of the storm.
     Today, it is almost unthinkable that a storm marching across the country could ambush so many cities and people.   The reason was simple:  In 1940 there was not a truly functional national weather prediction system, much less a central office.  Many people didn’t really see the need for more ‘big government’ and big expense.  If the Old Farmers and weather lore was good enough for their grands, it was good enough for them.
   At that time, most long-distance transportation was by train.  If there was a storm in Yankton, South Dakota, the station master would send a telegram to stations to the east along the line,  advising them of the situation.  Commercial passenger air service, although it existed was still in its infancy.  Early pilots who might be flying from Grand Rapids to Milwaukee,  would first check in at their airfield’s control tower for any news.  Or, if they were worried, they might call or telegraph to ask Chicago or Milwaukee for the conditions there.
     Even the big commercial radio stations, WGN in Chicago or WCCO in Minneapolis, did not always get weather updates.
    The Armistice Day Blizzard was a wakeup call for the federal government to do something.  They talked about it, had some of their people draw up some plans, but little came of it until the end of the following year.  Then, it was for a different reason – the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.  Suddenly the federal government realized that if it was going to be flying armadas of bombers, military transports, and fighters across the country, they needed reliable weather forecasts.  And if they were going to be shipping war materials and people by train across the country, they needed reliable weather forecasts.
     You and I are the direct beneficiaries of that storm and the changes in weather forecasting.  Today, a network of reporting stations, radar, and observers are spread across the country. Amateurs were added in the 1950s when many local meteorologists persuaded members of the Boy and Girl Scouts to become rain gauge watchers. Every time there was so much as a sprinkle, each morning they called in their report. 
    Soon amateur radio operators, or “Hams”  as they are called, joined in the communications. When a summer or winter storm was predicted for their area, they were alerted to be on standby. If the storm struck, they were activated and watched the skies.  They are still a vital part of local forecasts and reports. They reported downed trees and power lines, or other emergencies.
    Most importantly, professional meteorologists are constantly studying their computer models, charts,  and using ever-improved analogs to make accurate predictions.
    We are fortunate!
    Locally, there is even more. One of the benefits of social media is that so many of our friends and neighbors are updating their pages and websites with the road reports.  Living here in Saugatuck, I wouldn’t think of driving to Douglas,  much less  Holland, in bad weather without first checking for information from two women. One is a long-time florist; the other a long-time realtor.  If there are slippery spots, heavy fog, white outs or black ice,  or other traffic back-ups, they let us know.  There are others who do the same, but if either of those two report filthy conditions, I listen.
    That’s what happens in smaller towns and when people care for each other.  It is just one of many reasons why we live here.

Leave a Reply