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Milestones: Winter storms leave chilly memories

A February 1916 snowstorm dumped 42 inches over a two-week period, forcing Bellingham merchants and others to grab their shovels.
A February 1916 snowstorm dumped 42 inches over a two-week period, forcing Bellingham merchants and others to grab their shovels. HERALD PHOTO

Snow is quite an event in Bellingham, whether it's a dusting that melts within the hour or a blizzard that shuts down the city for days. But most of the real damage comes when melting snow fills drains, streams and rivers to overflowing.

Bellingham and Whatcom County history is sprinkled with memorable windstorms, blizzards and floods.

The risk for flooding rises during the so-called "Pineapple Express" that brings warm moisture from the tropics during winter, causing rain to fall on snow in the mountains. The rain and melting snow pour directly into swollen streams.

High winds arrive when storms cut across the northern Puget Sound, causing low-pressure storms to meet high-pressure areas. The result - winds that can reach 100 mph, toppling trees and power lines and tearing roofs off of buildings.

Luckily, summer temperatures rarely reach 100 degrees, and winter temperatures rarely fall below zero. Still, here are 10 stretches of foul weather to make your joints ache:

  • Winter, 1996-1997: Up to three feet of snow dropped by a holiday storm blocked city streets for days because Bellingham lacked plows to clear drifts up to 10 feet high. Chastened city leaders later decided to buy some plow blades.

When the snow melted, floods caused millions in damage and broke through a Lummi Reservation dike, pouring up to 20 inches of water onto Haxton Way and cutting off access to much of the reservation.

  • Winter, 1990-1991: Six major storms — two floods, two Arctic windstorms and two heavy snowstorms, along with bouts of freezing rain and a silver thaw — battered the county over two months. Upward of 100,000 residents lost power. Ferry service to Lummi Island was cut off. Damage reached $30 million, and that didn't include private property damage and economic losses.
  • November 1989: Five days of record rain produced flooding that knocked out an 80-foot section of the Nooksack River bridge at Nugents Corner. Damage was pegged at $5.3 million.
  • February 1989: A savage storm packed a wind-chill factor estimated at 50 to 70 degrees below zero and wind gusts up to 104 mph. The storm knocked out power to 16,000 customers, closed schools, damaged crops, and froze milk in pumping equipment at local dairies.
  • January 1969: A storm froze stretches of the Nooksack River. Snow blocked portions of Guide Meridian, with one snowdrift on Pangborn Road measuring 25 feet high and 100 yards long.
  • Oct. 12, 1962: The famous Columbus Day storm packed winds up to 98 mph. It took six days before everyone got their electricity back.
  • March 1951: A freak spring storm dumped 23 inches of snow over four days. Temperatures plunged to 10 to 15 degrees.
  • January 1950: Repeated snowstorms wracked the county for more than a month, beginning New Year's Day. Temperatures dropped to zero; winds hit 75 mph. It was so cold that it didn't rain until Feb. 5. Whatcom Waterway and the Nooksack River at Ferndale froze over. Winds destroyed five planes and damaged 29 others at Bellingham International Airport.
  • February 1916: Seventeen inches of snow fell in Bellingham the first week of the month; 42 inches fell over a two-week stretch. Snowdrifts rose 30 feet high. Lynden was cut off from the world for four days.
  • February 1893: A fierce blizzard packed winds up to 80 mph as temperatures reportedly fell to minus 13. One settler said the wind "drove frozen hail-pellets with fierce intensity."

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