Monday, 3 March 2014

The Montreal Blizzard of '71

The biggest weather event in Montreal history to date is the 1998 ice storm, there is no disputing that fact. Montreal has also had the famous Decarie flood from severe thunderstorms in July 1987 and the March 1993 Superstorm that paralyzed the Eastern Seaboard and dumped over 40cm of snow in Montreal in about 18 hours. But long before those events there was the blizzard of  March 3-5, 1971. As far as I am concerned this still stands as the biggest snowstorm this city has recorded, with all do respect to December 27, 2012 when we broke the long standing ‘71 record of the most snow in 24 hours. Despite that record, December 2012 was no March 1971.
The photos on this page are from Radio Canada/CBC Montreal, shot during the height of the storm on March 4 and below the aftermath on March 5, 1971
1971 was a beast of a storm, a low pressure area that deepened rapidly as it moved from Louisiana to New York State. It would start snowing at 5pm on March 3rd and not stop until the early morning hours of March 5th. It virtually shut down the St. Lawrence Valley from Cornwall to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River with tropical storm force winds, hurricane like low barometric pressure of 970mb in Montreal (the lowest pressure at the center of the storm would be 966mb, equivalent to a Category 2 hurricane) and over 50 cm of snow. The drifts were over six feet high and shut down all major highways across the area stranding thousands of motorists. Thirty fatalities were reported from the storm in Quebec, including 17 in metro Montreal. Accumulations for the 36 hour storm were impressive with 47cm in Montreal but as much as 80cm in other parts of Quebec.

The most dangerous aspect of this Atlantic Nor’easter was the ferocity of  the winds which gusted to over 120km/h in many parts of the St. Lawrence Valley including 110km/h at then Dorval Airport. Visibility at the airport was below one kilometre for over 17 hours, including a five hour period during the daylight hours on March 4th when it was completely nil. It was far worse in open areas off island where travel was impossible. I spent the day in the window of our home on the waterfront in Verdun watching snowmobiles go back and forth in the zero visibility for hours rescuing motorists and delivering people to area hospitals. Roads were closed including the 401 and 20 and power was out to thousands of Hydro customers for several days. There were even reports of damage to roofs and other infrastructure as a result of the strong winds. It would take 36 hours for most major roads to be cleared for travel, longer for city streets. Montreal streets were littered with abandoned cars including emergency vehicles forcing police to respond on foot or by snowmobile. Bus and train service stopped but the metro continued to run where power was available. The NHL game between the Candiens and Vancouver Canucks on Thursday, March 4th had to be postponed making it the first time since 1918 that a Habs game was cancelled. The storm occurred at the end of what is to this date the snowiest winter on record in Montreal with 380cm of snow.

In reference to 2012 vs 1971, I remember what long time CJAD traffic reporter Rick Leckner said on the morning after we broke the 1971 record on December 27, 2012. He noted that the only similarity between 1971 and 2012 was in the quantities of snow, 45cm (2012) in 24 hours vs 43cm (1971). On the morning after the big storm, March 5, 1971 he took the CJAD 800 helicopter up for a look at the carnage left on Montreal and southern Quebec highways. What he saw was abandoned cars everywhere and one lane down the center of most highways, nothing more. There were huge drifts of snow blocking highways all over the city. On the morning after the December 2012 storm, people were traveling to work on black top at 100km/h with no delays to speak of.

The 1971 storm stands alone. In an era where we call everything a storm, we have yet to match it, I will let you know if and when we do. I have blogged before about the 71 storm and its impact on me at the young age of 5. We had a tremendous spot on the St. Lawrence River in Verdun to watch the weather events of the day unfold. This event also holds for me a strong connection to my late father. He was one of the few who defied the odds and made it to work and back home on March 4, 1971. I sat waiting for him until 7pm in that the windowsill. It is the stuff of legends in our family, and many feel the start of my lifelong passion with the weather. To this day any entry I do on the blizzard of 1971 brings lots of comments and oh so many page views. There still seems to be plenty of interest in the events of 43 years ago this week.

1 comment:

  1. Stephen, Great piece of writing on the 1971 storm, it brings back memories of that awful storm.