Holiday disasters: The 12 storms of Christmas
Thursday, December 24, 2015, 9:06 AM - Christmastime is supposed to be full of good cheer, especially if you live in a part of the world where you might wake up on December 25 to find snow on the ground outside.
But sometimes, your White Christmas can get out of hand, and make the season a nightmare.
We looked back through history for times when the holiday season was marred with intense weather or other natural disasters.
Here are your 12 storms of Christmas.
2013: The great ice storm
The ice storm before Christmas 2013 cost lives, left hundreds of thousands of people in the dark, and brought travel to a grinding halt at a time when many were on the road to visit family.
It began December 20 in communities in Ontario, and by the time the freezing rain finally stopped falling (after 43 hours at Pearson in Toronto), some 30 mm of ice accretion was being measured in the worst-hit areas, according to Environment Canada.
Freezing rain fell from Lake Huron all the way through to New Brunswick’s Fundy Shore, in a slow pan over several days. More than enough time for ice to slowly buildup on every available hard surface.
Ice-laden tree branches fell onto cars, homes, and power lines. Hundreds of thousands of customers lost power, and more than 100,000 didn’t get it back until after Boxing Day.
The roads were a slippery nightmare. Numerous collisions were reported, when people dared travel at all. Along them were six highway fatalities.
The lack of power contributed to still more deaths. People made do with generators and other heating methods, but not always accounting for fumes. At least five people died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The death toll and scope pales in comparison with the 1998 storm in Ontario and Quebec, that killed more than 20 people people and left millions without power, many for weeks.
But its Christmastime arrival adds a layer of cruel timing that makes it memorable in its own right.
2013: The UK's Christmas floods
We’re used to Christmas snow storms (and less common, ice storms!), but in England, it was floods, not flakes, that caused chaos across the pond in 2013.
The country had already been slammed by powerful winter weather in early December that all but shut down rain and air transportation in Scotland and left 100,000 homes without power. Another round in mid-December was a prelude to the deluge that began December 24.
Near-record amounts of rain poured down onto a landscape too saturated to absorb it. Fields and roads were flooded, and rivers burst their banks. Aerial shots of southern England towns vanishing beneath flood waters were all too common.
Sailors and motorists had to be rescued from the flood waters. The Guardian reports at least five people died in weather-related incidents, including one man whom the BBC says drowned after jumping into a swollen river to rescue his dog. The animal was later found unharmed.
And according to the UK Met Office, it wasn’t even close to stopping. There were two more rounds later in the month leading to the new year, followed by a January that was the country’s wettest in 250 years.
In all, the first half of 2014 proved to be the country’s third wettest on record.
2013: The eastern Caribbean storm
Thousands of kilometres away, people in the eastern Caribbean spent Christmas at the mercy of pounding rains, the result of what some called a “freak storm”
St. Lucia, Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines were the three hardest-hit nations. In St. Vincent, officials said 300 mm of rain – more than the island gets in a month – fell over the course of five hours, sparking floods and triggering mudslides.
Nine people were killed, including a two-year-old child.
In St. Lucia, six people died, and the economic damage was extensive. Around 40 per cent of the banana crop was destroyed, along with 90 per cent of the vegetable crop.
We don’t have any reports of the death toll (if any) for Dominica, but the country’s ambassador to the OAS said the storm did around $18.5 million in damage – and suggested climate change contributed to the devastating storm.
2012: Southern U.S.
This is one people in the Deep South will be talking about for some time to come.
A powerful storm system swept much of the region. Where temperatures were below zero or very near it, it manifested as 25 cm of snow and hours of freezing rain, making highways all but impassible, downing trees and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of people.
And in areas where it was warmer, it was thunderstorms and tornadoes. The National Weather Service says as many as 48 tornadoes may have spawned in several states.
One, famously, was caught on camera atop the local news station in Mobile, Alabama, as it swept the town’s outskirts. Watch the flashes of light at its base as it wrecks the city’s power infrastructure:
No serious injuries were reported from the twisters, but the system that spawned them was blamed for three deaths: Two due to falling trees, and another on a snow-covered highway.
NEXT PAGE: The catastrophic Boxing Day tsunami
2004: The Boxing Day tsunami
When a Magnitude 9.1 tremor cracked the earth off the tip of Indonesia’s Aceh province, on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was one of the deadliest in human history.
In all, an estimated 228,000 people perished in 13 countries, with the waves reaching in some capacity as far as east Africa. 170,000 of the dead were in Aceh, and some 1.7 million people were displaced.
It was the third largest quake since 1900, and remained the deadliest in a century until 2010, with more than 300,000 people were killed by a quake in Haiti.
Though the recovery effort has been tremendous, the disaster has left a deep scar in the consciousness of the worst-hit nations.
2004: A White Christmas in Texas
No book-keeper would take any odds on a white Christmas in Texas, but a storm in 2004 on Christmas Eve brought that incredible rarity to most of the U.S. gulf states.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
It wasn’t just a dusting on those palm trees. According to this source, 33 cm fell in the worst-hit areas of Texas and even Houston saw some snow, though only trace amounts.
Still, for drivers not accustomed to even a sprinkling of the stuff, it was enough to cause serious problems. At least three people died, and numerous people were injured in collisions.
Christmas that year would have been brutal further north. A powerful storm swept into the Ohio Valley after Christmas, lasting 30 hours and dumping more than 70 cm in the worst-hit zones.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
17 people were killed, and one person in Canada, to which the storm stretched, and thousands of people were injured. This paper says the total damage was in the region of $900 million.
2001: Buffalo's incredibly snowy Christmas
Everyone in Canada watched, dumbfounded, as the city of Buffalo got hammered with days of lake-effect snow in late 2014.
As staggering as it was, people in the city have more than enough experience with that kind of weather.
Image credit: NOAA
At Christmastime in 2001, Buffalo was the bullseye of a similar event that dropped more than 200 cm of snow over five days.
With little wind, it just kept falling, blanketing homes and highways.
Travel ground to a halt, including bus service, and the city was forced to declare a state of emergency.
Image credit: NOAA
The storm proved fatal, though not as much as the recent event. At least two people are known to have died: One who died in a car crash, another who was killed when a carport, laden with heavy snow, collapsed on him.
1987: Snow falls in Arizona
It’s possible to see snow in the deserts of the U.S. southwest, but, like the Texas gulf coast, the odds of it actually happening are astonishingly low.
So anyone who woke up in Tucson, Arizona, on Christmas Morning in 1987 to a fresh coat of snow would have counted themselves especially fortunate:
Parts of the city got around 10 cm of snow, with lesser amounts elsewhere. A great time for snowball fights. Not so great for anyone who was relying on the more than 100 km of highways that had to be temporarily shut down (we’re guessing Arizona’s snowplow fleet isn’t exactly legion).
The same system brought major flooding to Arkansas and Mississippi, with hundreds of people having to be evacuated.
In the Arkansas town of West Memphis, the weather disaster was insult added to injury: Earlier in the month, a tornado killed six people there.
NEXT PAGE: A Christmas flood puts Oregon underwater
1964: The Pacific Northwest's flood of the century
Record snow, then near-record rains, made for disaster at Christmastime in the U.S. Pacific Northwest in 1964.
When the rain started falling, melting the 25-50 cm of snow that had fallen on some areas of Oregon and Washington, the resulting floods were devastating, raising rivers several metres above flood stage.
Storm sewer infrastructure couldn’t cope, and sources from the time report water gushing up through manholes like a fire hose.
Helicopters and amphibious vehicles were called in to rescue the hundreds of people who were stranded in their homes, and at least one hospital had to be evacuated. Landslides were numerous.
The economic damage was enormous, with factories and farmland wrecked. The human cost: At least 17 people killed.
1953: New Zealand's deadly volcano mudslide
It was not New Zealand’s famously benign climate that was the cause of this incredible disaster, but one of its several volcanos.
Mt. Ruapehu on the North Island had already erupted in 1945, but quickly subsided, leaving behind a substantial crater lake, held in on one side by ice, volcanic rubble, and dense ash.
So it was until Christmas Eve 1953, when part of that wall collapsed, sending 340,000 cubic metres of water and mud gushing down the mountainside.
The mudflow took out a railway bridge at Tangiwai, on the route of a train from Auckland to Wellington carrying 285 people. Several carriages went right over the gap into the river, with the raging waters carrying one 2 km downstream.
A rescue effort managed to save many from death, but it was too late for 151 people, including 20 whose bodies were never found. It remains one of New Zealand’s worst train disasters ever.
1776: George Washington laughs at Christmas blizzards
1776 is celebrated by our American cousins as the year their Declaration of Independence was signed, but it’s also the year of one of the rebels’ first real victories against British forces.
Led by George Washington himself, the Patriots were facing down a force of British troops and Hessian mercenaries across the Delaware River. So Washington decided he would take the fight to them.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
On Christmas. In December. In the midst of a snowstorm, and ferrying his troops across a river whose waters were thronged with ice chunks.
In freezing temperatures that took a toll on his men, who were poorly clothed.
Also, he carried out the crossing at night. If nothing else, Washington was a lover of unconventional warfare.
Still, despite the ridiculous odds, his men made it across, and they routed the Hessians, whose commander surrendered to Washington before dying of his injuries, in the process handing the Americans a victory for Christmas.
The Great Christmas Flood of 1717
Aside from the Boxing Day tsunami if 2004, this is the deadliest Christmastime storm on our list.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
At least 14,000 people are believed to have died in this massive catastrophe, where a huge tempest at sea caused storm surges of several metres in Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.
This German source says whole villages, numbering thousands of homes, were swept into the sea, along with huge swaths of land in the low-lying Netherlands, famous for its long back-and-forth struggle with sea.
2,200 people died in the town of Groningen alone, then as now a major commercial centre.
We’ve little records from that time, but while we’re sure the relief effort must have been enormous, by necessity, the Christmas spirit did not seem to move the looters that are known to have robbed the ruins, and the survivors, under the guise of coming to help.