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Why the Halloween Blizzard still matters, 25 years later

On Oct. 29, 1991, no place in America was happier than the Twin Cities. The Twins had recently won their second World Series in five years, with a first-baseman who went duck-hunting between games and a star outfielder whose credit-card ad began, “You don’t know me, but ….” There were parades that day in both St. Paul and Minneapolis, a party at the Metrodome, and a one-word utterance from manager Tom Kelly: “Wow.”

Few fans, flush with victory in the climate-controlled Dome, likely noticed that the day had begun, at midnight, with a high of 64, and that the temperature had been falling ever since. It bottomed out at 26 that night, a drop of nearly 40 degrees. For the next several days, the temperature would never rise above freezing.

The snow began falling not long after all the Homer Hankies were swept up, around 10:30 a.m. on Halloween. It didn’t stop until Nov. 3. It was a plague of snow, a siege, as if we’d flown too close to the sun on the tips of Jack Morris’ mustache and were now free-falling into deep frozen space. 

Fingers started showing up in hospitals. Pink icicles, chopped at the knuckle. There were dozens of other hand injuries, too, grisly enough to require x-rays. Snowblowers were plugging with leaves, still unraked, and when people reached in to clear them — even with the power off — the blades suddenly unwound like a dog off its leash. 

We were caught with our snowpants down. When the storm finally let up, four days later, there were 28.4 inches of snow in the Twin Cities — still a record in the metro for a single storm. Nearly 37 inches had fallen in Duluth. Twenty-two people had died. A hundred thousand were out of power. Highways leading in and out of the state were gated. Minnesota was closed. 

An artifact or an omen?

It’s tempting to think of the Halloween Blizzard as a relic, the final wheeze of Old Minnesota, like the Armistice Day blizzard of 1940 or the Long Winter of 1880–81, when caribou still roamed the North Shore and snowdrifts topped 20 feet high. Before climate change kicked in and took the edge off winter.

But in fact the opposite is true. The blizzard can now be seen as the start of our present moment, warmer but wetter, punctuated by monster storms and little in between. More than half of the 20 biggest snowstorms in the Twin Cities, going back to 1891, have occurred since the 1980s. The 3 feet of snow that fell in Duluth in the Halloween Blizzard — a state record at the time — was topped just three years later. 

The blizzard revealed an anvil hanging over our heads, a perpetual threat of paralysis. And it threw Minnesota into an identity crisis — whether to downplay our climate or embrace it — from which we have yet to recover.

It’s been awkward. Minneapolis unveiled taglines like “The Coolest City on Earth” and the state lured Hollywood with the promise of abominable snow. We got "The Mighty Ducks," in 1992, but also "D2: The Mighty Ducks," in 1994 — “an extraordinary low,” according to the Washington Post. In 1996, "Feeling Minnesota" made us a metaphor for depression.

We became desperate, and it showed. It’s as if we needed to convince ourselves, in the wake of the blizzard, that we weren’t crazy to be here. Three feet of snow could be dumped on our heads at any moment — does that make us interesting? Does it make us better people? Does it make us cool? It took us a long time to believe that it does.

Recently, we’ve begun to worry not that the Halloween Blizzard will be repeated but that it won’t. No place in the country is warming as quickly from climate change as Minnesota. Our snow season has become shorter and sloppier, an old man in his dotage. “Keep the North cold,” the tagline/admonition of the new North campaign, warns that our wintry heritage may melt away, leaving us without any identity at all. Feeling Nebraska. 

This winter, another polar vortex is forecast to grip Minnesota. With any luck, it will squeeze out a blizzard. Shut down the highways. Bury us deep enough that we turn inward and remember who we are. If it doesn’t, if indeed we’ve turned a climatological corner on the road to Omaha, we’ll always have the Twins. 

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Comments (4)

The label

As an old man in his dotage, someone who owns and uses a snow-thrower, but is not especially fond of the machine, nor the array of snow shovels he's acquired to deal with the various kinds and depths of snow in his Minneapolis neighborhood, and – I should point out – who is decidedly NOT a native of the state, I'm just fine with fewer and smaller snow storms, fewer occasions to break out my snowshoes, and lower heating bills because of milder winters. I'm not wealthy enough to be a Snow Bird, so I've learned to adapt to my new homeland, but adaptation does not imply affection or enthusiasm.

The memory lingers

Ah yes, the streets didn't get cleared promptly, the snow got packed down and turned to bumpy ice, and then we had another storm around Thanksgiving time. I remember a thaw that came a month or two later, followed of course by a refreeze. Lots of pavements got damaged, and in the spring East Lake Street looked like a test course for automobile suspensions!

Campaigning in a blizzard

There was something else going on in Minneapolis, in my neighborhood, at that time. City Councilmember Brian Coyle had just passed away (there have been recent tributes to Brian noting the 25th anniversary of his death), and he did so on the last possible day for a normal election cycle -- later and there would have been a special election scheduled. I was volunteering for Jim Niland, who had to go through an endorsing convention and primary in a record condensed timeframe. In October, the lawn sign volunteers had just completed printing, stapling to plywood, and distributing dozens of lawn signs throughout the ward. They were large, 2' x 4' signs and guess what color they were? Yes, white! When the blizzard hit, all of the signs were buried and/or invisible. I was the coordinator of the literature drops and, despite my recognition that no volunteers were going to show up, I had to make the trek to Kinkos to prepare the maps for the volunteers, just in case. But no volunteers showed at planned events all weekend (surprise). The last few days of the campaign were spent trudging through piles of snow to get out the vote. We won anyway, but the blizzard was an unexpected hiccup in an already hectic campaign.

Another memory, too

Good that Jim Niland was there to step in; I miss his presence on the Council and in the neighborhood.