As Christmas approaches everyone reflects on the past and for longtime Denver residents that oftentimes means remembering one of the most significant winter storms in the Mile High City’s history – the Christmas Eve Blizzard of 1982. This major winter storm has become the one by which all others are compared not only due to its record-setting impact but also due to its timing being near Christmas.
As Christmas 1982 approached, forecasters were predicting a white Christmas several days beforehand but most were expecting a moderate snowfall of 6 inches. Two days before Christmas Eve though, the picture began to change. On the 22nd a Pacific cold front came ashore in California bringing severe rain, high surf and even hurricane force winds. As it moved east over higher terrain, it dumped 2 feet of snow in the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City.
At about that same time, jet stream winds were forming a trough of low pressure over the southeastern plains of Colorado. The counterclockwise motion of the trough began to pull moist air into the state. Further east Kansas and Oklahoma experienced severe thunderstorms and even tornadoes. The winds set the stage for strong upslope conditions along the Front Range.
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Rain changed to snow on the plains and shortly before midnight on the 23rd, a full blown blizzard had developed. Denver woke to snow on the ground the morning of Christmas Eve but the storm was just getting started. Snowfall rates of 2 – 3 inches per hour were the norm during the day and winds screamed at 50mph causing wind chill temperatures to plummet to as low as -35 degrees. As conditions continued to deteriorate throughout the day, the gravity of the situation began to be realized.
Stapleton International Airport was forced closed at 9:30am on the 24th and remained closed for 33 hours and only limited operations were possible for days following the storm. Thousands of travelers were left stranded in the airport and forced to spend their white Christmas on the concourses of the facility.
Last minute Christmas shoppers quickly found themselves wishing they hadn’t procrastinated. Malls and shopping centers became refugee centers as the city shut down and roads became impassible. Mall workers were unable to go anywhere so the mall restaurants stayed open providing food for those who were stuck. For the first time in history the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News were unable to publish their newspapers.
4 – 10 foot snowdrifts covered many areas of the city, built by the extreme winds and snow. Every mode of transportation was paralyzed and every highway into and out of the city of Denver was closed. Many residents who were caught in the storm had to rely on the kindness of strangers for shelter or braved the blizzard trying to make their way home on foot.
The snow totals for the storm were nothing short of incredible. Golden Gate Canyon to the west of the city received 48 inches, Thornton 34 inches, Littleton 29 inches and Denver had 25 inches. Denver’s 24 hour total was a record which still stands to this day. Colorado’s bizarre weather can truly be seen also when looking at the snow total for Greeley – a mere 45 miles north of Denver – where only 1 inch of snow fell!
The aftermath of the storm took weeks to recover from and the toll was astounding. Three people died as a direct result of the storm and there were many injuries from frostbite and falls. Roofs collapsed across the city striking greenhouses especially hard whose damage alone was estimated at $5 million. Fences and trees were downed and power outages were common. The local economy took a tremendous hit as the second busiest shopping day of the year was a bust – it is estimated that area businesses lost $500 million in holiday sales.
The removal of that much snow proved to be a huge effort for residents and governments. While children happily built snow forts and tunnels the adults labored for days digging out.
For Denver mayor Bill McNichols the storm proved to be disastrous to his re-election efforts the following May. Millions of dollars was spent on snow removal but the city’s 45 snow plows simply were not capable of dealing with the sheer amount of snow.
A decision by McNichols to have trash trucks drive down the streets to compact the snow only added to the misery. The compacted snow became riddled with “snow potholes” and ruts and was barely better than when buried under snow and residents were less than pleased.
To make matters worse, the misery of the storm was only prolonged by cold weather in late December and through January which left snow on the ground for 48 consecutive days – the third longest period on record. The snow could easily have lasted longer except that perhaps mercifully, no significant snow fell for two months after the blizzard.
When the Denver mayoral elections came around the following May a young political new comer named Federico Pena defeated McNichols. Voters indicated the response to the Christmas Eve Blizzard of ’82 was one of their biggest reasons for choosing a new mayor.