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Blizzard in Chicago; Record snow from Rockies to Great Lakes

By Patrick Mondout

In January of 1979, Chicago experienced one of its worst blizzards on record. The storm started on the night of Friday, January 12th and left 20 inches of snow over the weekend on top of a base of seven to ten inches. It closed O'Hare - the world's busiest airport - for 46 hours and left the mayor's re-election plans in shambles.

The blizzard itself devastated areas from the Rockies to the Great Lakes and left at least 99 dead. In Iowa, National Guard helicopters brought in 75,000 pounds of hay to starving cattle. Similar efforts were made throughout the Midwest.

In Chicago, roofs collapsed from the weight of the snow, and transportation was brought to a standstill for nearly a week. Garbage trucks were unable to run and the rats took advantage. The salt used to de-ice the roads caused motor failures on some of the trains. Abandoned cars slowed snow removal efforts. Buses were at least two hours behind schedule if they were running at all. After six days, only half of the runways at O'Hare were open for traffic.

President Carter declared 23 counties in Northern Illinois disaster areas. Governor James Thompson of Illinois initially toured the state for photo-ops, but then headed to Florida for a vacation with his family. He cut his vacation short after citizens expressed outrage. He was not the only politician to suffer.

Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic, who took over after Richard Daly died in 1976 and was seen as a caretaker of the office until Daly's son was ready, lost the Democratic primary to Jane Byrne in on February 27, 1979. The defeat was widely reported to be a result of his inability to keep the city open for business during this blizzard. (Byrne won the general election in April while Bilandic was elected to the Illinois Supreme Court in 1990 and became the Chief Justice.)

Sources: NOAA.
"It snowed, snowed snowed." Newsweek, January 29, 1979: 33.


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Your Memories Shared!

"I remember the snows of 1979 - I was in grade school, and our Christmas vacation was extended by an extra week for snow days. We lived in rural Kenosha County, in Wisconsin. My mother would drive weekly to the city of Kenosha to buy our groceries. This winter, the drive was an amazing site - the snow was drifting from the barren corn fields so high that the highway department had to cut back the snow into 10 - 15 foot high "walls"... we were driving through "tunnels" of snow. As a child, I was thrilled by this, although visibility was cut off while driving around curves. I haven't seen snow anywhere NEAR that since."

"I remember I was in grade school, we lived in a two flat in Waukegan Ill. The snow was so high it covered half the windows in our apartment. I remember it was one of the greatest times of my life as a child. We had great times jumping off the roof into a huge snow pile. Helping people shovel thier driveways, also making a few dollars doing so. Something kids don't do anymore. Going sledding, having snow ball fight. That was a time in my life I will never forget. "




Courtesy of NOAA

Date(s): January 12-14 1979

Location: Rockies to the Great Lakes

Deaths: 99

Injuries: Unknown

Damage: Billions

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