The 'Blizzard' of '96
1:30 AM, December 27, 2016 - a note about life in Victoria and a few 20 year old memories.
a short vignette drawn from the author's own experiences.
(All names were changed to protect the innocent and confuse the guilty.)
© 2016 by K Pelle
I was just online, reading my e-mails and got another long list of 'mistakes and errors' in my various stories. It's rather humourous in a way - I now have three editors and yet no matter how many times we check each chapter, errors still creep through - usually an average of about one or two a chapter. Actually some of the 'errors' that are pointed out are humourous on their own.
For instance I have long since lost count of the number of times that someone has sent me a spelling 'correction' when I refer to this area of Canada as the 'wet' coast instead of calling it the west coast. Come on folks, I do know how to spell - at least the simple words. Instead I use the word 'wet' to poke fun at Victoria's weather, because during the winter we do get a fair bit of rain. I suppose it seems to many of our winter tourists that we get a lot of rain, but in reality it's not all that bad, especially if you compare Victoria's weather to Vancouver's - at least most of the time. In fact if your check the facts and figures listed by Agriculture Canada you will find that Greater Victoria and the Saanich Peninsula are listed as a 'semidesert' area.
However to understand what happens in our area during the winter, you have to realize that the major influence on our weather is the Pacific Ocean. Greater Victoria is situated on the very southeastern tip of Vancouver Island and is virtually surrounded on three sides by salt water. As a result we usually get warmer and drier weather than the people in Vancouver or other parts ofthe lower mainland - only that isn't always true.
Indeed our winter weather is often influenced by the 'Pineapple Express,' a warm moisture-laden storm front that approaches us from the direction of Hawaii, and at those times we usually get a warm rain. However, on occasion during the winter months, a weather phenomenon called the 'Siberian Pipeline' that normally flows through Alaska and into the Yukon changes direction and is diverted southward. Instead of roaring over the Alaska panhandle, then up and over the interior mountains and into the arctic or the prairies, that cold air mass is diverted southward and races along the lower altitudes between the Coastal Mountains and the Rockies. Then there are times when part of that frigid wind follows the Fraser Canyon and is diverted back toward the west coast, which is when we suffer what our weathermen refer to as a 'cold outflow.'
If that cold outflow from the 'Siberian Pipeline' runs head on into the warm, wet airmass of an incoming 'Pineapple Express,' then our weather goes sideways. That's because the warm front rises over that cold outflow and the normal precipitation of the 'Pineapple Express,' falls through a layer of extremely cold air. As a result the rainfall we would normally expect to receive falls as snow. That's what happened during the first 'major' snowfall we had in 1996, which came on the shortest day of the year - oh yeah, December 21st 1996 - now that was a December to remember.
Now I can't really tell you what happened in downtown Victoria on that day, because I wasn't there, instead I was living at a marina situated on the Saanich Peninsula. Actually I was living right on the dock - in fact I had spent months working on a former packing plant for small bait-fish, converting the building into a residence. It was a tiny little house built on the pilings of the dock and right on the sea shore, so the waves washed in and out under my feet at high tide. For once in my life I was close enough to the ocean to suit my Scandinavian heritage and I could relax to the sounds and smells of the sea. In 1996 I was working an eight-hour day at the University of Victoria, did karaoke gigs two or three evenings a week and was also acting as an 'involuntary' night watchman on the dock. Not only that, but I was filling in as occasional wharfinger on weekends, but still managed to spend several hours each week at the computer, writing articles for several men's magazines, as well as erotic stories for online publication. At that point of my life I had a steady lady friend as well, a lady who described me as 'the ultimate workaholic' and often said; 'If you aren't making money, you're making woopee.'
But let's skip all that, then we can get back to talking about winter weather and the fact that on the afternoon of December 20th I had booked off at the University for a fourteen-day break. Next I convinced Sarah, my lady friend, to drive that evening, so the two of us could attend a friendly competitor's pre-Christmas karaoke show. In return for being the designated driver that night, Sarah would be a guest in my home on the dock for the rest of the weekend. Since she was driving, I was able to sample a dram or two of Scotch whisky on Friday night, but in return she would be free to sample the booze at the private party where I was scheduled to provide karaoke the next night. So we went downtown and we both had a good time, then Sarah drove back to my home through a mild snow flurry - of course that was something we had both learned to expect at that time of year. Both of us had lived in the area long enough to know that light snow flurries often pass through the Victoria area in late December, but we seldom see a white Christmas.
At any rate we made it home safely, then we had a final drink as we stood in the shelter of my front porch and watched a dusting of light snow fall. Tiny flakes were sifting down past my front porch light and landing on my front deck, but off to the side they fell into the waves that slid back and forth under the dock the little house had been built on.
It must have been at least three in the morning when we hit the sack, so being awakened shortly after seven by a loud screech from Sarah wasn't exactly a pleasant way to start the day. I leaped out of bed and found Sarah using a bath towel to dry her legs while swearing at my cat. It seemed he had come in from outside and rubbed up against her bare legs as she came out of the bathroom and Sarah didn't appreciate his 'friendly' greeting.
I thought it was hilarious, until I realised that the cat was wet because he was covered in snow and I checked outside to see at least six inches of snow on the dock. So I dressed quickly, grabbed a cup of coffee, ate a fried egg sandwich and headed out to clear the dock so some damn fool wouldn't fall on his keister. Indeed I spent the day shovelling snow off the dock and clearing snow off several of the boats that were moored at the marina to prevent them from sinking. Thankfully Sarah insisted that I come inside every few hours to warm up and have something to eat and drink, but by four in the afternoon, I was bushed. I really wasn't looking forward to humping all my karaoke gear up to my truck in the parking lot, then fighting the snow covered roads just to do a four hour karaoke gig in someone's 'brand new' entertainment room.
Then the phone rang. It was my karaoke customer calling to say that he was going to have to cancel the show because he'd had a tree fall across his driveway, so there was no way he could have a party that night. Instead he asked me if I could do his karaoke party a week later. Actually that suited me just fine and the fact that the snowfall was lessening suited me even more. Even Sarah was happy, because not only was she able to stay with me another night, but she was certain that enough snow had fallen so we had a good chance of seeing a rare white Christmas. Unfortunately that was not to be. Instead it had been a somewhat typical snowfall, for while we'd had at least three times a normal snowfall of three to four inches, the snow melted away in the next couple of days due to the weather's usual follow-up of warm rain.
We didn't realise it then, but that first storm was just a precursor of what was going to hit us the next weekend. Instead I again offered Sarah the same deal as the week before and on the night of the 27th we hosted a karaoke party in Sid and Monica's home and 'broke in' their new entertainment room. On the way home after the party I teased Sarah about the fact that we were again driving home in a light snowfall, telling her that the owner of the dock had bought several snow shovels and that one had her name on it. Even she thought that was slightly funny and the two of us were in a good mood during the drive. However both of us were less than enthused at the idea of carrying all my karaoke gear down the dock and into my house. We had to be extremely careful not to fall, since the coating of fresh snow made the wooden steps and deck boards extremely slippery.
Neither of us were very happy on the morning of the 28th of December either. When we awakened there was more snow on the ground than had fallen over the whole of the 21st and it was still coming down heavily. So it was a case of all hands on deck and we shovelled or swept snow all day, but we managed to prevent the boats and docks from sinking and in some cases it was a close thing. Inside of one full day (24 hours), we had to deal with more than two feet of snow in our area. Looking back it's certainly no surprise that we went to bed early and fell asleep very soon afterward.
On the morning of the 29th we looked out the window and both of us heaved a huge sigh, because it didn't look like we had accomplished a damn thing. So we had coffee, ate breakfast and went back to work. Not much later I was shovelling snow from the upper dock area between the office building and the boat repair shed when I heard a loud creaking sound from the big repair shed. I glanced up at the building and it seemed to be quivering, then there was a loud crack and I immediately dove for cover, but before I could reach shelter I was briefly buried in a cloud of flying snow. The weight of the snow on the roof of that old building had brought it down. Unfortunately there had been a thirty-foot cruiser under repair and sitting on the marine railway that was built into the lower portion of that shed. (Both the building and the boat were write-offs - actually the building was insured, so it was rebuilt and improved, but the boat hadn't been insured by the owners, so it was sold for salvage.)
Having one building on the dock collapse was enough to get both the owner of the dock and me worried though. So within a very short time we were calling in help to clear the snow off the docks, boats and roofs and for the next day and a half we were busy little beavers. Luckily we only lost that boat and that building and thankfully the snow eased off that night, but we still had to get rid of what snow was left before the rains started to fall, which would have made the snow much heavier.
When all was said and done, we'd had more than five feet of snow fall on the marina within 48 hours and we had to contend with the aftermath. But, although we may have had slightly more snow than some other parts of the Greater Victoria area, it couldn't have been much more, which meant the whole region was having problems.
Traffic came to a standstill because the greater Victoria area simply didn't have the plowing and snow removal equipment to handle that much snowfall. The city of Victoria only had a few snow plows and they were 'scraper' plows, with blades hung beneath the frames of dump trucks, so they were practically useless in deep snow. Esquimalt and Oak Bay were in almost the same condition, while Saanich, Langford and the local highway department might have each had one or two pusher plows because of the local highways. As a result it became a matter of calling out the local construction and landscaping businesses that had front end loaders and trucks to open the streets and that process took days. Much of the snow was shovelled by hand and just finding a place to dispose of the excess became a major problem. In some cases it took over a week for many of the streets to be opened, but by then the snow was melting due to warmer weather and light rains.
During that period the snow buildup caused houses, athletic centers, greenhouses and other buildings to collapse, boats and boathouses to sink and a multitude of other problems, so there were several million dollars of damage. However, I heard later that there were only two deaths attributed to that snowfall, one elderly man who was shovelling snow had suffered a heart attack and a second guy who stayed in his car had either frozen or was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. That's somewhat astounding because the local supply of food and medications became a problem for many of those who were housebound by the deep snow. Since the ferries and the airport connecting to the mainland weren't operating, the delivery of supplies simply didn't function and local stores soon had empty shelves. Even the politicians, bureaucrats and workers in the various provincial and municipal offices or maintenance facilities were unable to get to work, so it often became a matter of friends and neighbours helping out those in need. Luckily, one of the local radio stations, 'CFAX 1070,' became local heroes for many who needed help and assistance because they stepped up to the plate, opened their phone lines and acted as guides for volunteer helpers.
Since there were no high winds, the so called 'blizzard of 96' wasn't actually a blizzard, just an exceptionally heavy snowfall, but for those of us who lived through it, it was a disaster. As I've said previously, it was a local weather anomaly, but the southern end of Vancouver Island and the lower mainland had to deal with a greater depth of snow than had fallen in such a short period for over eighty years, so it's no wonder there were problems.
As for me, I have bittersweet memories of that storm because I think the stress I put on my back at that time may have brought on an early development of the deterioration in my spine. Not only that, but the aftermath of those frenetic days may have led to my breakup with Sarah a few months later. The long term effect was my retirement from the University and my forced move to a ground level residence in Esquimalt so that I was under less physical and emotional stress.
But even twenty years later, I still have a T-shirt stored away in one of my drawers that sums up the final days of 1996 quite well. That T-shirt is still white and the bright blue lettering on the front still proudly proclaims to the world that "I SURVIVED THE BLIZZARD OF '96!"