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Terry’s Take: The April blizzard of 1973-Iowa’s perfect storm

Posted on: 9:42 pm, April 8, 2013, by , updated on: 10:55pm, April 9, 2013

Terry Swails Weather Blog

When I was a junior in high school, 15″ of windblown snow fell on my hometown of Iowa City April 8th and 9th, 1973.  School was closed for 3 days, simply unheard of during April.  My memories of the whiteout revolve around the warmth leading up to the storm. It was so nice the day prior to the snow, I had camped out with friends at the Coralville Reservoir.  That night the wind picked up, the temperature plummeted and a cold rain began to fall.  By daybreak Sunday it was freezing and by flashlight I packed up, drove home and went back to a warm bed.  Several hours later I woke up to the voice of my mother telling me to look outside, it was snowing hard and the flakes were big as silver dollars. Shocked, we shrugged it off knowing full well it was April and it wouldn’t last long.

BLAIRS FERRY ROAD CEDAR RAPIDS 4/10/73

BLAIRS FERRY ROAD CEDAR RAPIDS 4/10/73

When the last flake fell two days later, I had witnessed the blizzard of 1973, one of the most unusual snowstorms in Iowa history,  During the dead of winter it would have been one of the state’s most severe winter storms.  But three weeks into spring, the blast of cold, wind, and snow was unparalleled.  A blizzard of such magnitude that a comparable storm may not occur for centuries.

I-80 CLOSED AND FULL OF STRANDED CARS AND TRUCKS NEAR CORALVILLE

I-80 CLOSED AND FULL OF STRANDED CARS AND TRUCKS NEAR CORALVILLE

SURFACE MAP OF DEEPENING STORM THE MORNING OF 4/8/73

SURFACE MAP OF DEEPENING STORM THE MORNING OF 4/8/73

In every way, it was Iowa’s perfect storm because so many ingredients had to come together in just the right way. Record cold had to be in place.  Vast amounts of moisture had to be available and the storm would have to deepen and move along a precise track.

Improbable as it was, everything gelled the morning of April 8th, 1973.  The snow grew heavier as the day progressed and when winds reached 65 mph that night, more than a foot of snow and 5-10 foot drifts left most of Iowa paralyzed.

By the time the storm blew itself out, the only part of Iowa unscathed was the far southeast (including the Quad Cities). The cut-off line was sharp. Maquoketa picked up 16.2″, while Clinton less than 25 miles to the southeast picked up an inch. Dubuque 40 miles north racked up 19.2″.

Snow removal was a major task with most state and city plows dismantled for the season. Once the plows were reassembled, the wet heavy nature of the snow made plowing even more difficult. Conditions were so bad I-80 was closed and for a time no roads were open in or out of Iowa City.  Many rural roads were drifted shut or down to a single lane for up to 5 days.

FUN IN THE SNOW! SCHOOL CANCELLED FOR UP TO 3 DAYS

FUN IN THE SNOW! SCHOOL CANCELLED FOR UP TO 3 DAYS

FLEUR DRIVE CLOSED IN DES MOINES

FLEUR DRIVE CLOSED IN DES MOINES

There were fourteen weather related deaths in Iowa.  200,000 turkeys and 100,000 head of cattle were also killed in the storm.  Livestock and poultry loses alone were measured at 20 million dollars. It was a blizzard for the ages and one I’ll always remember as Iowa’s perfect storm!

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