Today marks exactly 20 years since the first snow began to fall and which we now look back on in Victoria as the “Blizzard of 1996.” December 21st Victorians were greeted to snowflakes dusting the streets – little did we know that the last three days of December would see us blanketed.
On the evening of December 26, 1996, it began to snow again and would continue over the next several days. Over 65 cm of snow fell December 28-29 alone, breaking records set in Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto!
Along with the 96 photos submitted by our fans, we’ve also re-printed in part the account of local Victorian Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, known as “The Weather Doctor”. Dr. Heidorn passed away in 2013, but his family has graciously granted us permission to include his words here:
The media called it the Blizzard of 1996, although with heavy snowfalls so rare here, The Blizzard would have sufficed. (The last major snowstorm of comparable size struck in 1916.) The rest of Canada had a rare opportunity for “reverse-gloating” when they heard the news — Victorians can be rather smug about their mild winters and take every chance to rub it in to the rest of the nation.
The media also called it a “disaster,” but that, in my opinion was an exaggeration. If the storm was a disaster, it would be for its impact on local buildings and infrastructure. Damage and clean-up costs were pegged at around $200 million Canadian dollars. Insurance claims of $120 million were the largest for a single event in British Columbia history.
I term the event a transportation emergency since the accumulated snow prevented people from going where and when they pleased. Even four-wheel drive vehicles could not negotiate the deeply covered streets. The hardy took to walking or skiing. The greatest concerns arose when emergencies occurred, and police, emergency vehicles and medical attention could not get to the site because of the snow-clogged streets. Victoria has but a few snowplows (five at the time), and most are attached to the centre of dump trucks, a viable method of snow removal in the normal light snows but of little use in deep snow accumulations since the trucks could not drive over the snow in front of them.
Not only did mechanized surface transportation stop, but Victoria International Airport and the BC Ferry service to the mainland and surrounding Gulf Islands also ground to a standstill. Staff could not reach the terminals nor could any passengers get to or from the airport and ferry terminals. Boating was possible if you could get to one, but before you could embark, the decks had to be shovelled free of the heavy snow to avoid capsizing. Many protective boathouses collapsed under the immense weight of the snow, trapping and often damaging the boats within.
The various levels of government (Victoria is the Provincial capital) were slow to react to the gravity of the situation. As a result, a local and popular talk radio station CFAX voluntarily undertook organization of the community response, initially through default but later because word had reached many citizens to tune to them for emergency information. (CFAX would later be cited with a special award from the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society for their efforts during the situation, an award for which I nominated them.)
CFAX’s open phone line manned by announcers Mike King and Greg Morin connected those in need with those who could render assistance. For example, up the Saanich Peninsula, a seniors’ housing complex was literally snowed in. Snow drifted around the building prevented doors from being opened, and many of those trapped within became frightened. One elderly woman phoned CFAX emotionally asking for anyone with a shovel and within walking distance of the complex to help dig out the seniors. Within hours, a small squad of neighbours descended to clear the doorways of snow.
The overall reaction of the citizens of Greater Victoria was one of cooperation within neighbourhoods, offering what help could be delivered. Neighbours joined together to shovel snow from roof-tops, doorways, walkways and even full street. They shared food, medicines and other supplies. They offered companionship to those caught alone or frightened. Since snow in Victoria is so rare, many residents don’t own a snow shovel so in lieu of the proper equipment, people used cake pans, plates, platters, baking sheets, dustpans, and cardboard boxes to create paths through the snow. Others just waded out and stomped trails into the snow.
All neighbourhoods were not as cooperative as others, unfortunately, and some major disagreements arose over the use of the few single-lane roadways dug out by hand shovelling, as addictions to tobacco, alcohol and the automobile overcame common sense and forced mad trips to the nearest stores.
But, those who made it to a store usually found it closed. In those stores, mostly small convenience stores, able to be open, runs on food items quickly cleared shelves. In many cases, empty shelves could not be restocked for more than a week as post-holiday deliveries were stalled by the snow. Supply trucks were caught on the mainland awaiting the resumption of ferry services to the islands and a reopening of highways from the ferry terminal into town.
Hospital and nursing home staffs on duty during the storm were trapped and required to take extra shifts. Many Victorians could not obtain critically needed medications because there were few ways to connect supply with need.
Those businesses — restaurants, shopping malls, groceries — that might have been open during the mid-holiday period were forced to remain closed because employees could not negotiate the trip to work. Bakeries dumped thousands of dollars of bread and dough when the bakers could not reach work nor the baked bread be delivered. Dairy farmers were forced to dump their milk for several days because it could not be taken to the dairies for processing and distribution.
The storm wrought major damage to many buildings and utility structures around the region as the weight of the waterlogged snow collapsed roofs, sports bubbles, boat houses, carports and greenhouses. A number of boats sank under the weight of snow on deck, and several float homes capsized or sank. Many of the region’s fragile greenhouses, private and commercial, were crushed under the burden of the snow, destroying not only the structure, but the crops growing within.
Some specific incidents included:
- Roof cave-ins at the Thrifty’s Food Store in James Bay, North Saanich Panorama Leisure Centre, Glen Meadows Golf Club curling rink;
- Thirty-five boats lost at the Capital City Yacht Club in Sidney, sunk or damage in boathouse collapses;
- An Esquimalt float home capsized with all contents lost;
- Two Viking Air hangers collapsed, destroying four aircraft and assorted equipment inside;
- Vantreight and Sons greenhouses crushed under weight of snow.
The storm had some unexpected side benefits in addition to community cooperation. The one most commented upon by Victorians was the quiet. I know my first reaction on awakening that morning was the lack of the urban clamour. Without the unceasing din of traffic, natural sounds wafted across the city. The barking of California seals wintering on several small islands off Victoria’s east coast was heard many kilometres inland.
Douglas Street near View St – Tim Anderson’s wife Viki writes, “It was a crazy winter where people became friendly and the streets became amazingly quiet due to lack of cars, or very slowly moving vehicles.”
Seven stories up in a condo in Songhees, open halls filled with snow. Photo Kevin Lintern – “My wife and I had just found out we were having our first baby, we wanted to tell my parents in person. We lived on Gorge Ave, they lived in Songhees. It took us about 3-4 hours to make that walk as most of the places were thigh deep snow…” K. Lintern
Joseph street in Fairfield. Photo via Muriel Marshall – “We got stuck checking on my mother. We had to shovel our way out to the end of block. This was due to a large camper truck that went down the street leaving large ruts in the snow.” Dennis Raffard and Muriel Marshall.
Waiting for the bus! Serendipitous visit from South Africa. Photo Sabine Kearns – “My husband, two boys, and I were visiting Victoria from South Africa. When this photo was taken, we were waiting for the bus to visit friends in Courtenay. We now live in Qualicum Beach, the beautiful little town we discovered on that very bus ride!” SK
Cars buried in James Bay. Photo Peter Friebel “The fence at the end of this street makes me think it’s not San Jose. A sharp Victorian, can probably work out what street in James Bay it is.” Peter Friebel
Vanalman Avenue Saanich. Photo David Antrobus – “These photos were taken from our first home on Vanalman Ave. Everyone had to walk to Country Grocer at the time along thin channels in the snow.” David Antrobus
Montrose Avenue, Victoria. Photo Katie Stewart – “I worked at the Times Colonist, and was able to walk in, normally about a 20-minute walk. Only 35 people made it to work and there was no paper the next day.”
Yates St looking towards the intersection at Vancouver St. – “Yates was eerily quiet those days with only one lane ploughed and the only vehicles I saw were the police. I made myself eggnog pancakes and was keeping my food waste garbage in the freezer.” Jacqueline Staples
After the shovelling. Photo Tianna Shaw “Photo taken after my dad (Kenn Shaw) had finished clearing our roof and driveway in Victoria West, with me (Tianna Shaw) aged 2, standing atop the mountain of snow in front of our house.”
Judy Scott shovelling the snow on Kinross Ave – “Shovelling the snow in front of my sister’s house on Kinross Ave, Victoria (where I was stranded after coming to the island from Nelson for Christmas).” Judy Scott
Swallowed by snow on Kinross Ave. Photo Judy Scott – Judy Scott’s teen son and nephew dug a tunnel from the back door, across the yard to a picnic table. They hung out with hot chocolate in their snow fort. “We couldn’t see him while he was beneath the snow, but he surfaced to let us know he made it.”
South African visit to Nanaimo. “I will never forget the radio warnings for cars to stay off the road, and yet we were travelling cautiously along trying to get to the last ferry to the island (after staying in Surrey).” Gareth Evans
Keep checking the Victoria Buzz Flikr account over the next week as we add more photos from the blizzard of 96.
Do you have photos? Send to > > [email protected] – Please include “Blizzard of 1996” in the subject, and also a brief description of the photo such as location.
A special thanks to the family of Keith C. Heidorn for giving Victoria Buzz permission to include his recollection from the blizzard of 1996. The full text of his account can be found HERE.