My Story: Spooky Halloween Mega Storm memories

Halloween 1991: My Halloween Mega Storm story

20 years ago today I was a young buck meteorologist looking at weather maps in the weather center at WCCO-TV in Minneapolis.

I can recall standing there with WCCO’s Mike Fairbourne, Mike Lynch, Bill Endersen, Karen Filloon and others in those days leading up to the infamous Halloween Mega Storm and all of us looking in some disbelief at the unfolding weather scenario.

Some of the computer models at the time, with quirky names like LFM (limited fine mesh) and NGM (nested grid model) were winding up a major winter storm early in the season. The storm was gathering strength in Arizona, expected to dip deep into Texas, and then spin up the Mississippi River Valley almost due north into Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The “numerical output” for expected precipitation with the storm was staggering. The day before Halloween, I recall us looking at a forecast of over 2″ of liquid for the metro. The system looked just cold enough for all of that to be snow. At a 10:1 snow:rain ratio, that would have been over 20″ of snowfall for the Twin Cities!

We knew there was going to be a big storm, but I remember us all just kind of looking at that extreme forecast in some disbelief that it could actually dump that much snow.

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NWS surface map shows Mega Storm low pressure winding up in southeast Iowa, moving north. (Note the second area of low presure off the east coast. That’s the so called “Perfect Storm“)

Halloween Day 1991:

On the day of Halloween 1991, the time had come to make “the call” on the coming storm. Precipitation was scheduled to arrive that night, and would rapidly change to snow. If memory serves me correctly, we put out an initial a forecast of between 8″ and 12″ of snow for the Twin Cities, with heavier totals possible for Duluth.

WCCO-TV did not have a morning newscast at that time. My news managers decided to have me come in early Thursday morning and do some brief weather “cut-ins” to keep viwers updated until the daytime crews shift began. I was expected to be at the station by around 5am.

Halloween Night 1991:

I had worked the day shift the day of Halloween, and I was home by about 6pm on Halloween night. I remember pulling into my west metro driveway and seeing all the big red oak leaves on the lawn. Was it really possible I wouldn’t see the ground again this fall?

As we were handing out candy to the neighborhood kids, I was racing back and forth across the lawn with the lawn mower, in the dark with the house lights on trying to pick up the leaves on the front lawn. The trick or treaters were looking at me as if I was the scariest thing they had seen all night. Who was this crazy guy mowing his lawn in the dark on Halloween night?

When you’re the neighborhood weatherman, and when people know who you are, they start asking questions if you’re doing something unusual in your yard. Does this guy know something I don’t? Is there something I should be doing in my yard too?

As I head off to bed that night, a misty rain is changing to heavy wet snow. The alarm is set for 3:30am.

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3:30 am Thursday November 1st 1991:

I wake up in Minnetonka to the sound of wind, and quiet. One look out the front window and I am stunned. The snow is coming down so fast I can barely see the street out front. There is already what looks like 12″ to 15″ of snow on the ground, and my lawn that was bare 6 hours ago is covered with deep snow.

The driveway and street is deep and unplowed, and I’m about to jump into my little red Honda Accord hatchback and try to get from Minnetonka ot downtown Minneapolis by 5am. There are no traffic sounds, and not a snowplow to be seen.

I jump into my Honda and attempt to back out of the garage into the already snow choked driveway. The car just stops about 15 feet outside the garage. I still have another 30 feet of driveway, slightly uphill to navigate before even getting to the street.

I pull straight back along my tire tracks into the garage in front of me. I shift the (manual) car into reverse, and carefully make another run backwards along my tire tracks. Another 15 feet.

I do it again, careful to stay in my tracks. I know if I skid to one side I’m stuck, and I’m not getting into the station this morning. My tracks now go almost all the way to the street and I decide to go for it. As I make the backwards run out of the garage into my tire tracks, I realize that the only way I’m going to go forward on the street is in one deft move where I let the snow on the street stop me, shift quickly into 1st gear and start forward.

Thankfully there is a slight downhill once I’m on the street, and I lurch forward toward the stop sign. Like every other traffic signal device that morning I will ignore it, knowing if I stop anywhere I’m stuck right there.

It’s about a mile to I-394 and I make the ramp. I’m doing about 25 to 30 mph in the deep snow. (My little Honda was great in snow) Snow is flying up on the sides of the car like a rooster tail from water skier as I plow through.

I’m the only car on the freeway, making a lonely run down I-394 through St. Louis Park at 4:15 in the morning heading for downtown Minneapolis. There’s are no other cars, no tire tracks on the freeway, and not a snow plow in sight.

As I come off the ramp on 12th Street into downtown Minneapolis the story is the same. Snow choked streets, no traffic and optional traffic lights. After about 6 blocks, I veer into the parking lot behind “The Times” near 11th and the Nicollet Mall…and bury my car sideways in a snow drift n the middle of the parking lot.

I gather my gear and trudge the last block through a more than a foot of snow, prying open the door at WCCO-TV on 11th Street and the Nicollet Mall.

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“We’re going to turn this into the Weather Channel”

As I stomp into the WCCO Weather Center, Bill Endersen is the only other meteorologist in the house if memory serves me right. He is handling AM radio duties for WCCO Radio.

I am scheduled to do some weather hits for TV starting at about 5:30am. There are just enough crew members to get us on the air.

The radar is choked with blue, green and yellow. The snow is coming down at the rate of “1 to 2″+ per hour, and there’s no let up in sight.

We do a couple of weather hits. At around 7am, the News Director John Lansing stomps into the studio with his parka and sorrel boots still caked with snow. The look on his face is priceless.

“Paul, I want you to turn this into the Weather Channel. I want you to go on the air, and stay on the air for as long as you can.”

I recall my initial response was one word. “Cool!”

There are no other anchors, no other TV meteorologist, and no reporters in the station, and we’re about to go on the air with live continuous weather coverage during the biggest snowstorm in Twin Cities history. Thankfully I had no clue about the magnitude of what was unfolding at the time.

We hit the air again. John is now producing the coverage in the control room and we are switching between any source we can find, Radar, satellite, forecast maps, live cam, snow totals so far. John begins to arrange “phoners” with various officials and some of our reporters and anchor staff who are still stuck at home. Still, no other anchors can make the trip into WCCO-TV to anchor the coverage. I’m on my own.

Soon WCCO-TV reporter Trish Van Pilsum (now at FOX9) makes it into the station. I’m in the studio; she’s on the WCCO-TV roof. There is little of no traffic in downtown Minneapolis at the height of rush hour on a Thursday morning. Busses are stuck on the streets. A lone cross country skier is making good time down the empty Nicollet Mall.

For about 5 hours nobody can make it into WCCO-TV, and nobody is moving anywhere in the metro and in most of Minnesota. Somewhat stunned, I keep updating the latest official MSP Airport snowfall totals on the air. 18 inches, 19.5 inches, 20 inches… 23 inches!

I clearly recall the pivotal moment in our live coverage that morning. I am on the air live with the Minnesota State Patrol Captain and he says it. “We are recommending absolutely no travel in the metro and surrounding areas today. It’s just too dangerous. Stay home!”

You could almost hear the collective gasp and cheer from homes across the metro.

At some point in the coverage, I uttered the phrase “Halloween Mega Storm” to describe the snowy blitz. I can’t recall if I just made it up or repeated it, but it stuck.

We are on the air live for nearly 5 hours straight, with just a few short breaks. Finally a couple of news anchors and reporters manage to make it into the station for the noon newscast. We continue to do extended live coverage through the day, right into the evening newscasts.

I shoot some stories outside that afternoon and finally I’m able to head home around 5 or 6pm. I dig my car out, and somehow manage to navigate the partially plowed streets home. I’m scheduled in again the next morning for more coverage.

The next day the daily ratings come into the newsroom. Because of John’s decision to go into continuous live coverage, WCCO-TV was an overwhelming #1 in the market that day. The station pulls a 40+ share for much of the coverage that morning, meaning more than 40% of all Twin Cities households had us dialed in that day.

My news director would joke the next day, “Hey Huttner, you’re the only person in the history of this station with their own “40-share.”

In spite of the joke, what we all knew was that the decision to take continuous live weather coverage that day was the reason we did huge number and won the day. The Halloween Mega Storm set new highs for news viewership in Minnesota that fateful day, and made lifelong memories for Minnesotans.

Talking to Minnesotans I find the Halloween Mega Storm is one of those events that everyone remembers where they were and has a story. What are your memories of that “weather crazy” day 20 years ago?

PH

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Photo: Minnesota Climate Working Group