Disasters – The Blizzard of ’49
The Great Plains states are known for severe winters, but the winter of 1948-49 was one of Nebraska’s worst. During a warm September and October of 1948, farmers brought in an outstanding harvest of corn, wheat, and soybeans. They were having good luck. But in November, their luck ran out.
Starting November 18, a blizzard roared into the state with heavy snow, sleet and winds of 50 – 70 miles per hour. Roads were blocked, schools closed, snow drifted over rooftops and livestock were stranded. Travelers filled hotels to overflowing. Trains were stuck, and telephone service was disrupted. The Weather Bureau called the storm “one of the most severe blizzards of record over much of the central and northeastern portions of the state.”
In the northeast part of Nebraska, Hartington and Bloomfield were hit with 24 inches of snow. Omaha and Lincoln had heavy rain and some snow, but missed the worst of the storm. After the November storm, the phone company reported that more than 5,000 wire breaks and more than 1,700 telephone poles down.
Holly Miller and a couple of other men went out in the middle of the storm because people were stranded between Waco and York. “They found a little girl that was crippled in the car,” he says. “And they hauled, carried her to Waco in that terrible blizzard that you could hardly get your breath in, you know.”
Some of the snow melted before the next storm hit around Christmas. After a brief warm spell, the next storm started on January 2. Rain began to fall, then the temperature and barometer dropped as the storm got worse. The blizzard lasted for almost three days across western, central and northern Nebraska. Winds of 50 to 60 miles per hour drove heavy snow on top of what had fallen earlier in the winter.
Winton Wright remembers a local cattleman who tried to take advantage of the blizzard. He figured that the storm would reduce the number of cattle that could make it to the large stockyard market in Chicago and therefore raise prices for any cattle that did make it to market. “They hired young men to scoop a path for the cattle to drive to Benedict to load on the train,” he says. “They thought they had a good market.”
People were isolated on farms and ranches. Snowplow operators, police, volunteer firefighters and physicians struggled to handle medical emergencies. When the supply of coal and fuel ran out, some rural families burned furniture to stay warm. Pilots dropped groceries to stranded ranch families. When the electricity went out, families “refrigerated” their milk and cream in snowdrifts. Ranchers hooked up their horses and pulled sleighs and wagons to get to town or to check on livestock. Four people died in the January storm.
The last two weeks of January brought sub-zero temperatures and then freezing rain and more snow. The last week in March another storm hit around North Platte, dropping 20 more inches of snow. The storm caused train derailments and flooding. The Big and Little Nemaha Rivers flooded because of ice jams. On April 14, the last of the big storms hit south central and eastern Nebraska, with 12 inches of snow.
Mildred Hopkins and her husband were school custodians, and he drove a school bus. She says the winter of 1949 was so bad even wild animals became trapped in the snow. “Hop [her husband] was driving a school bus then. [The snow] was taller than the school bus… Once they had a coyote down in there and they chased it through this big tunnel of snow… Hop wouldn’t run over it… but it didn’t have any place to go.”
During the winter of 1948-1949, parts of the state had received more than 100 inches of snow. One area in Antelope County had drifts that reached about 30 feet and didn’t melt until June. Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wyoming all suffered through the blizzards.
Operation Snowbound was an effort by many groups, including the Fifth Army, the Red Cross, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Air Force, the National Guard and the Civil Air Patrol. In Nebraska, Operation Snowbound:
- covered 193,193 square miles in four states
- saved more than 4 million cattle from starvation
- freed more than 243,000 snowbound people
- cleared more than 115,0000 miles of road
- used 1,600 pieces of heavy equipment
- coordinated a 6,000-man workforce.
In his short poem entitled “Great Plains in Winter,” former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (right) evokes the stillness the descends over a landscape covered in snow.