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The Halloween Blizzard of 1991

On Oct. 30, 1991, no one in Minnesota foresaw a blizzard. Local meteorologists predicted a few inches of snow. The snow began to fall in the early to mid-afternoon of Oct. 31 and fell steadily for almost three days.

On Oct. 29, the Minnesota Twins’ World Series victory parades in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul drew hundreds of thousands of people. It was a chilly day, with a high temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit and cloudy skies. The only snow that day fell in the form of confetti.

The next morning, meteorologist Paul Douglas’s column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune noted the rising of a warm front from the south and predicted snow on Halloween Day. A photograph in the following issue of the newspaper nevertheless showed snowmaking machines at work at a ski slope in Taylors Falls.

Natural flakes began to fall around noon on the 31st along a north-south line from the Canadian border north of Duluth to Rochester in the south. Some trick-or-treaters were deterred. Paul Douglas predicted as much as 10 inches.

He underestimated. Snow fell harder and harder through the evening of the 31st and into the morning of the 1st. Temperatures fell and winds increased throughout the day. By the end of Nov. 1, it was clear that this was a snowstorm of historic dimensions.

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A moisture-laden warm front from the Gulf of Mexico had, as Douglas predicted, collided with a Canadian cold front just west of the Mississippi valley. The cold front forced condensation of the water in the warm front and it fell — in the form of sleet and ice in Iowa and along Minnesota’s southern border. The storm moved rapidly almost due north, dropping snow in a 50-mile-wide band along the Minnesota/Wisconsin border.

The first flakes appeared in the Twin Cities at about 11:30 a.m. The snow reached Duluth ninety minutes later. By early evening, it was falling steadily across the eastern part of Minnesota, forcing most trick-or-treaters to return home disappointed. The airport recorded 8.2 inches that Thursday.

Snowfall totals from the Halloween Blizzard
Wikimedia Commons
Snowfall totals from the Halloween Blizzard
It snowed all night and all day on Friday, Nov. 1. The 20.4 inches that fell on Friday broke previous records for a 24-hour period. Some 900 schools and businesses closed. Several people died shoveling snow or in car crashes. At St. Paul–Ramsey Hospital, surgeons treated eight men for parts of fingers mangled or lopped off in snow blower mishaps. By late afternoon, the State Patrol had counted more than 400 snow-related traffic accidents.

The storm had so far mostly spared the western four-fifths of the state. On Saturday, Nov. 2, however, intense cold blew across the southern tier of the state, dropping temperatures into the teens and closing Interstate-90 from South Dakota to Rochester. Winds blew at 30 to 50 miles per hour, with gusts to 60. More than 80,000 houses lost power. Gov. Arne Carlson declared a state of emergency in Freeborn and Mower Counties, where thousands slept in shelters.

Temperatures fell to below zero on Sunday, Nov. 3, and the snow stopped. Duluth had seen 72 continuous hours of snow and an accumulation of 36.9 inches — then a state record. The snowfall in the Twin Cities measured 28.4 inches. About 20 deaths were attributed to the storm, and economic losses were estimated at $11.7 million.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the event was how tenaciously normal life resisted the storm. Metro Transit buses in the Twin Cities kept running until 8 p.m. Friday. The Twin Cities airport stayed open until 10:30 p.m. and reopened (to reduced operations) early Saturday. About 60% of USPS mail carriers in the metro area reported for duty on Friday. All state offices remained open except the Legislature.

Out on the streets, countless thousands of people, armed with snow shovels and snow blowers, dug out their neighbors and stranded strangers. On Monday morning, Nov. 4, almost the entire state opened for work and school at the usual times.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.