Several people have told me that if I really want to delve into the history of massive snowfalls in the valley, I should research the winter of 1996-97. Fortunately, I have the means to do that just a few steps away from my desk, in the bound volumes of the Methow Valley News that go back to the original issue in 1903.
I first visited the Methow in the summer of 1996. Had I ventured back in late December of that year, I might have been dissuaded from returning soon. The storm that pummeled the valley in the final days of 1996 was a destructive monster, generating the newspaper coverage you might expect. It will ring familiar.
The storm occurred between the newspaper’s last issue of 1996 and its first of 1997, dumping an estimated 48 inches of snow in Twisp and 60 inches in Mazama.
Then-publisher Lee Hicks (yup, just like now the publisher wrote news articles then) reported in the Jan. 2, 1997, newspaper’s lead story that “a series of massive Pacific weather systems that resulted in record snows throughout Washington closed all major mountain passes and virtually paralyzed most of the state.” That’s no exaggeration. I was living in Seattle at the time and the city was a cold mess, nearly unnavigable (some people would say that of the place now on its best day).
Predictably, the storm upended the valley’s holiday visitation season. “Merchants, especially innkeepers and restaurateurs, are lamenting canceled reservations for long-planned New Year’s activities,” Hicks reported. Lost business was widespread in the hospitality sector.
Businesses that managed to stay open arranged car pools for employees. Many winter-related activities were canceled, and snow plow drivers struggled to keep up. Even old-timers were gob-smacked by the deluge. Hicks noted that Roy Kumm, who had been keeping records for 61 years, said it was the most snow he had ever seen so early in the season — 8 ½ total feet of snow for October through December.
As for structure damage, a front page story chronicled the collapse of a garage roof adjacent to the Winthrop Motors building, “trapping seven customers and a new tow truck.” Fortunately, there were no injuries.
“Those who usually don’t think about snow on the roof suddenly grabbed shovels for a few hours of preventative maintenance,” Hicks reported. A story by Editor Mary Rea reiterated that advice, along with an admonition to keep an eye out for ice dams. The County Extension urged attention to snow-laden and ice-coated trees and outdoor plants.
There were avalanche warnings. Mail delivery was disrupted, as was electrical service to many. County Sheriff Jim Weed recommended that people just stay home. Most county roads were shut down for days. No respite was in sight. “WeatherWatch” columnist Bill Biddle, who many of you will fondly remember, projected that January would feature “snow and more snow,” with little relief before mid-month.
A week later, the Jan. 9 issue of the News reflected the storm’s enduring consequence with more detail. The school district was dealing with ceiling leaks at the high school, a situation that bloomed into a major community controversy. Many more building collapses and other structure damage were documented. Some residents remained stranded in their homes for days, awaiting a plow-out. Dr. Joe Jensen at Methow Valley Family Practice reported a larger than usual number of cardiac cases, not all necessarily related to snow shoveling but also other storm-related anxieties. Fish and Wildlife officials launched a deer feeding program. Spring floods were predicted to result from the epic snowpack.
There were some memorable stories. Twisp columnist Sharon Ellinger related the adventure of Kirsten Pritchard, whose car was caught in an avalanche on Bakke Hill Road while she was driving home. The car was nearly buried in snow, but Pritchard managed to wriggle her way out of a window and strap on her cross country skis to continue her commute home.
There was of course much more to revisit (as well as the usual community and sports coverage), and even after more than 25 years there are still a lot of recognizable names in the news from those days. It’s also fun and enlightening to read the advertisements — do you recall the Carlton Restaurant and Lounge, Art’s Café and the Roadhouse Diner?
A consistent theme in the newspaper’s coverage of that memorable meteorological event was how readily people in the community rallied to help their neighbors. I suppose you could say in the Methow that the more things change, the more they stay the same.