Bad-weather bonding – how extreme weather brings us together

While not the first major weather event in the annals of Northwest history, the Big Snow of January 1880 was the first to be extensively photographed.

Do you remember the 1962 Columbus Day Storm? Do you recall the biggest snowstorm of your childhood? Was your Thanksgiving or Christmas ever held by candlelight? How about Galloping Gertie, or the day the I-90 bridge was blown away?

And more immediately, how did you cope with this week’s snow in Edmonds? And are you ready for the additional 2-12 inches forecast for this weekend.

Local broadcaster, writer and historian Feliks Banel, a self-confessed weather geek, is part of the Humanities Washington speakers bureau.

“Weather affects everyone,” said Feliks Banel, noted local broadcaster, writer and historian, in a special presentation Thursday at the Sno-King School Retirees regular monthly meeting in Lynnwood. “But it’s more than that. By suffering through the same calamities, we form a bond of common experience that helps connect us and remember what’s important to us.”

Banel went on to explain that our tendency isn’t to look back on these as unpleasant experiences. Rather, we overwhelmingly recall the joy of getting through a tough situation and even years later share with friends our “war stories” of falling trees, frozen pipes, collapsing buildings or the host of other travails bad weather events can visit upon us.

Banel’s interest in weather began as a child with The Golden Guide to Weather. Over the years the book became dog-eared as he read it again and again.

“When we experience a weather event together, shared discomfort actually makes us more friendly,” he explained. “We say ‘hi’ to each other. It’s like we’re sharing this together. It brings people closer.”

With this introduction, he went on to recall some notable extremes in local weather, presenting archival photos and descriptions of past events beginning with the Big Snow of January 1880, during which 84 inches (7 feet!) of snow fell on Seattle over seven days.

“There was no weather forecasting in those days, so folks mostly had no idea these were coming,” he explained. “The first things you might notice are temperatures dropping and the wind picking up, and within a few hours find yourself and your neighbors blindsided by a major storm that you had no idea was on the way.”

Green Lake froze completely in the wake of the Blizzard of 1916.

Other Northwest events included the Blizzard of 1916, which collapsed the dome of St. James Cathedral; the Columbus Day windstorm of 1962, where 115 mph winds were clocked at Bellingham and three times as many trees blew down as were knocked over by the Mount St. Helens eruption; the Hood Canal Bridge sinking in 1979; the 1993 Inaugural Day Windstorm and most recently the Solstice Eve Storm of December 2018.

The 1940 dramatic collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in a windstorm earned the bridge the nickname “Galloping Gertie.”

And many Washingtonians know about the winds that rushed through the Tacoma Narrows on Nov. 7, 1940 causing the dramatic folding and buckling of the Narrows Bridge and sending it crashing to the waters below. The event earned the bridge the moniker “Galloping Gertie” and a permanent place in annals of Northwest folklore.

But arguably the classic example of a weather event that bonded friends, families and strangers was the Thanksgiving Day windstorm of 1983.

“The timing of that storm was just perfect,” Banel recalled.  “Turkeys were in the oven, families were gathered. All of a sudden the lights went off and the ovens went cold, leaving thousands of half-cooked turkeys that would never make it to the table.”

Seattle City Light crews work to restore power during the 1983 Thanksgiving Day Storm. The widespread power outages put thousands of Thanksgiving dinners in the dark, and ruined thousands of partially cooked turkeys.

Across the region, families improvised as best they could with varying degrees of success to save the day. But today, more than 30 years later, these events are recalled and stories are retold, often around holiday tables, and have become part of lore and history of those who lived through it. And with each retelling, families share, bond and relive their common experience.

“Weather is interesting,” Banel concluded. “It can bring us together. It’s an opportunity to reach back and think about history, how we’ve survived things in the past and how we’ll do it again in the future.”

— Story and photos by Larry Vogel

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