The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
42. Killer Weather

Copyright 2001     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
A satellite image of Hurricane Alicia striking the Texas coast, 1983

An angry U.S. Weather Service spokesman called it a "punk storm," a tempest that lashed the California coast in the San Francisco Bay area in January 1982, depositing 16 inches of rain in two days and triggering floods and mudslides that left thousands homeless, swallowed up sections of Highway 1, derailed an Amtrak Zephyr train, and forced the closure of the Golden Gate Bridge (which had happened only once before.) In Marin County, nearly 3,000 homes were destroyed. The San Anselmo police station was abandoned as floodwaters rose to chest level. In La Honda, police marksmen hunted a Bengal tiger, used by marijuana growers in lieu of a watchdog, that had escaped its cage, In all, 37 people perished in the floods, landslides and traffic accidents caused by the "Big Rain."
This was but one of several deadly storms that struck the United States in 1982. (Some astrologers blamed the bad weather on a rare alignment of planets in the solar system.) A week after the California storm, arctic cold embraced all of the Lower 48 states, bringing record lows in 75 cities, including Chicago and Augusta, Georgia, so that Monday, January 18, was called "The Coldest Day of the Century." One meteorologist called the storm a "monster," a frigid air mass spawned in Siberia that, before it was done, had destroyed 85 percent of Florida's citrus crop, left a million Alabamans without power for days, saw starving deer prowling the streets of Salt Lake City, and killed 16 people in Chicago alone. Temperatures plunged to zero and below in the Midwest, South and East. Ice on the wings of an Air Florida Boeing 737 taking off from Washington National Airport was blamed for the plane's crash into the Potomac River, a disaster that claimed 78 lives. The cold was so intense that it caused the explosion of a grain elevator in Destrehan, La.; 1.5 million bushels of wheat buried an adjacent cafe. Subway rails in Boston cracked. One of the many tragedies was the one that befell two young couples from Birmingham, Alabama who ignored state emergency warnings and went riding in a four-wheel-drive vehicle -- straight into an ice-covered pond. All four drowned, as did a one-year-old infant who crawled a few feet across the ice before slipping helplessly into the freezing waters.
Torrential rains punished California again in early 1983. Waves towering 16 feet destroyed the man-made island of Esther off Huntington Beach, ripped apart the Santa Monica Pier, and wrecked 1,600 homes along the coast. Ten thousand were left homeless and 16 lost their lives. But the biggest weather story of 1983 was a worldwide drought. In countries like Brazil, India, the Philippines and South Africa, millions suffered from drought-inflicted malnutrition, and many perished. The worst dry spell in Australian history ended in March, but it was estimated that farmers there would not fully recover for seven years. In the U.S., Agriculture Secretary John Block called much of the Midwest "agriculture disaster areas" in the wake of a severe summer drought that resulted in a 25 percent decrease in corn yield. "Corn was king in American agriculture -- a $25 billion industry.) The drought was caused by a stationary high pressure system that spawned deadly thunderstorms in the desert Southwest; nine Italian tourists were killed when a charter plane crashed in a rainstorm near the Grand Canyon, and two more people lost their lives when flash floods swept through San Bernardino, California.
At the same time, Hurricane Alicia slammed into the Texas coast -- the first hurricane to strike the U.S. coast in three years. An entire wall of Galveston's Hotel Galvez collapsed; Mayor E. Gus Manuel ordered an evacuation of the city, but it was too late for many to get to the mainland. Alicia marched inland, its 115 mph winds and the score of twisters it spawned leaving downtown Houston in a shambles. Nonetheless, the unflappable surgeon Denton Cooley performed a successful heart transplant even as Alicia roared through the area. And in the eye of the storm a sailor's wife gave birth to a baby girl -- named Alicia -- in a Galveston hospital. As the remnant of the hurricane spread north it brought much-needed rain to the Midwest, but at the cost of 13 lives lost.
In the span of six hours on 31 May 1985, supercell thunder-storms spawned 43 tornadoes that wrought havoc in New York, western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and Ontario, canada. An F-5 tornado -- the only F-5 in the state's history -- cut a 47-mile long swath through Pennsylvania, devastating the community of Wheatland and claiming 18 lives. In all, 75 people were killed by this swarm of twisters that caused nearly $500 million in damage.    
As hard as California was hit in the early Eighties, the worst was yet to come. For nine days in early 1986, a series of ferocious storms hammered the northern part of the state as well as portions of Nevada and Utah, in what experts said was the area's worst weather in 30 years. The Russian River jumped its banks and inundated the town of Guerneville. Mudslides in the High Sierras stranded thousands in Reno. Over 7,000 homes -- and 18 lives -- were destroyed.
Where killer weather is concerned, 1988 was the worst year of the decade. The summer brought the most severe drought America had suffered in fifty years, spreading from Georgia to California. The federal government declared a state of emergency in no less than 30 states. Scouring winds the likes of which had not been seen since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s carried away 750,000 acres of topsoil in Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas, and damaged 7 million acres more. Record high temperatures triggered dozens of devastating forest, bush and desert fires from Montana to Utah to California. Low water levels nearly brought Mississippi River commerce to a standstill. Meteorologists blamed the "Big Dry" on a splitting jet stream, with one branch swinging up into Canada while the other drifted south across Mexico. The jet stream usually brought moisture from the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico to the American heartland, but in 1988 it bypassed the Midwest altogether. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated a 24 percent decline in grain production; with commodity prices soaring due to tightened supply, Congress turned price support savings into disaster relief funds -- $7 million earmarked for farmers who had lost more than 35 percent of their crops. But federal dollars could do nothing for the estimated 1,500 people whose deaths were blamed on the heat during one of the worst summers ever. (July 1983 was only 1.3 degrees cooler than the hottest summer ever recorded, that of 1936.)
But Mother Nature wasn't quite finished. In September 1988 the biggest storm of the century, Hurrican Gilbert, a Category 5 monster with a 450-mile diameter and winds of up to 175 mph -- killed hundreds in its rampage across the Caribbean. After ravaging the island of Jamaica, leaving a half million people homeless, Gilbert appeared bound for the Gulf Coast, and over 100,000 Americans from Brownsville, Texas to Biloxi, Mississippi fled inland. While it spawned at least 30 tornadoes that ripped through Texas, the hurricane roared westward and made landfall in Mexico, where it flooded an area the size of Colorado. Hundreds died when a swollen river overturned four buses in Monterey. The powerful storm collected a 300-ft. Cuban freighter lying five miles offshore and deposited it in the middle of a building on the shoreline at Cancun.
The following year, Hugo -- the most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. since Camille in 1969 -- struck the Carolinas with winds of 130 mph and a storm surge of 10 to 20 feet. The surge sent a wall of water 17 feet high through the streets of Charleston. The hurricane cut a swath of destruction 150 miles wide, ripping through forests and destroying six million board feet of lumber in South Carolina while damaging 2.7 million acres of forest in 26 North Carolina counties. Considerable damage was done to communities like Charleston and Charlotte; in fact, Hugo set a new record by inflicting $4 billion worth of damage. Its power slowly diminishing, the storm rolled on through West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. A week later, 200,000 South Carolinians were still without power, while 50,000 in Charleston alone were left homeless. Eleven people lost their lives. In all its lethal majesty, Hugo seemed a fitting finale to the tragedy of killer weather in the 1980s.

The Yellowstone Fires
Of the many forest fires out west in 1988 -- at one point there were 27 major blazes consuming 1.5 million acres in eight states -- the worst occurred in Yellowstone National Park. In the hottest summer of the park's 116-year history, 13 fires consumed one-half of Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres. Park Service Director William Penn Mott described the fires as "the worst in over 200 years," and the gravity of the situation stirred debate over federal fire management policy, which called for allowing fires to run their course, on the theory that burning revitalized habitat. Tourists and local residents, however, were not mollified by news that the fires would be of long-term benefit to nature. By the time Yellowstone Park officials had reversed course and begun to battle the fires, the conflagration was out of control, and even an army of 9,000 firefighters -- including thousands of Army personnel -- could not contain it. In the end, only winter's rain and snow could douse the historic Yellowstone fires.

Fires burning out of control in Yellowstone N.P., 1988


Time, 25 January 1982, 14 March 1983, 11 July 1983, 29 August 1983, 13 February 1984, 1 March 1986, 8 September 1986, 4 July 1988, 25 July 1988, 5 September 1988, 26 September 1988

U.S. News & World Report, 4 August 1986, 29  August 1988, 19 September 1988

"Why Our Weather Is Going Wild," Lowell Ponte
Reader's Digest, December 1982

"Yellowstone: The Great Fires of 1988," David Jeffery
National Geographic, Vol. 175, No. 2 (February 1989)