"It was the blizzard by which all others are measured."
Monday, March 12, 1888, nearly everyone from as far south as Maryland and as far north as Connecticut and Maine awoke to snow that had begun to fall late March 11 into March 12.
By daybreak March 12, the 3 inches of accumulation at midnight had turned into 18 inches, according to the NWS. From there, things got even worse and didn't stop until March 14.
March 11-14, 1888
"Moderate to heavy snow continued throughout the day accumulating to 33" by midnight. Snow continued on and off through Tuesday the 13th, adding roughly another foot, until finally ending around 3 a.m. on the 14th. Total snowfall for the storm was 46.7 inches, but the drifts were significantly higher," writes the NWS in its online archive of historic weather events.
The March 1888 blizzard created mountains of snow that somehow had to be removed. It halted commercial, public and personal transport — and all less than ten days from the first day of spring in what had been an unseasonably mild March so far that year.
Monstrous piles of snow had no where to go. Engineers debated how to best push snow into the Atlantic Ocean. Melted snow would eventually flood low-lying areas, with rivers swelling.
The storm "paralyzed" cities: Philadelphia, New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C.
The total deaths from the blizzard, according to the NWS, were more than 400, including 200 in New York City.
Commercial and personal transport halted on land, sea and rail. Not just train tracks, but the trains themselves, were hidden under the snow. Boats were rocked by winds as strong as 50 mph. "Maritime losses over $1/2 million and loss by railroads and business several million dollars," writes the NWS.
The New York Times reported March 13, 1888 that the storm's devastation snapped telegraph poles, creating havoc and isolating neighbor from neighbor and making communication nearly impossible.
"When the people began to stir to go about their daily tasks and vocations they found that a blizzard, just like those they have been accustomed to read about as occurring in the far West, had struck the city and its environs and had laid an embardo on the travel and traffic of the greatest city on the continent," wrote the New York Times in its article "In a Blizzard's Grasp," which described a "helpless" city in a "tornado of wind and snow."
While streets were impassable and telegraph was down, fire damage was heavy as the conditions made firefighting nearly impossible, wrote the New York Times. On top of that, coal deliveries could not come through, leaving residents in stranded in six-degree temperatures.
March 12-14, 1993
March 1888 is still one for the record books for many parts of the Northeast, according to the NWS. But that didn't stop many a headline writer and physical scientist from calling the March 1993 blizzard the worst ever, too.
Dubbed "The Storm of the Century," it was more than a century from the 1888 storm, but March 1993 would blanket New Jersey under heavy snow, too.
In his May 1993 report on the storm, Scientist Neal Lott of the National Climatic Data Center wrote the death toll of the March 1993 blizzard was more than three times as fatal as hurricanes Hugo and Andrew, where 79 people died.
In March 1993, approximately 270 perished, and 48 people were reported as missing at sea in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean and Canadian waters, Lott wrote.
"The death toll includes those caused by direct and indirect (e.g., shoveling snow) results of the storm. Due to the widespread nature of the storm, assessing its toll has been quite difficult for damage survey teams--hurricanes are easier to assess due to their more limited areal coverage," Lott wrote.
Central New Jersey saw buckets of sleet fall on top of more than a foot of snow, said Lott.
"In areas to the east, wind-driven sleet occurred in some areas, with central New Jersey reporting 2.5 inches of sleet on top of 12 inches of snow — somewhat of an 'ice-cream sandwich' affect," said Lott.
The New York Times reported that evacuations were ordered in Monmouth and Ocean counties. The 1,800 residents of Sea Bright were ordered to leave by 7 p.m., for example, while elsewhere along the Jersey Shore residents voluntarily left their homes.
The temperature? Lows of 15 degrees in New York at JFK airport, the same temperature also recorded in Washington, DC.
Though the transporation and communication infrastructures were obviously widely different when comparing 1888 and 1993, the blizzard had comparable devastation, said Lott.
"Thousands of people were isolated by record snowfalls, especially in the Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia mountains. Over 200 hikers were rescued from the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains. Curfews were enforced in many counties and cities as 'states of emergency' were declared. The National Guard was deployed in many areas to protect lives and property," he wrote.
Roofs collapsed — hundreds, Lott said, thanks to heavy, wet snow. More than 3 million were without power, from snapped lines, fallen trees, high winds in March 1993.
Comparison of Storms
Lott wrote in his 1993 report that the two storms, though a century apart, had some "interesting" comparisons.
While the 1888 storm affected cities who had 19th-century technology to address the weather crisis — which created its own complications, the 1888 storm the more severe based solely on its weather conditions. It had more snow, for one. The flooding from the melting snow was more severe, Lott said.
However, the 1993 affected more land mass, stretching from Florida to Canada. It also included reports of tornados and when using the Saffir-Simpson scale for hurricane strength, it was equal to a category 3 hurricane considering its storm surge and minimum pressure, according to Lott's report.
"Although the '88 storm was more severe in the Northeast and New England than the '93 storm, it did not affect the entire eastern seaboard to the extent that the 1993 storm affected the area," Lott wrote. "The '93 storm affected 26 states and about 50 percent of the nation's population."