TBT: The Blizzard of ‘79

Man measures snowfall from his roof after the
Blizzard of '79. Photo from the Illinois Digital Archives.
Can a snowstorm swing an election?

Forty years ago this week, northern Illinois was hammered by one of the most memorable blizzards on record. The storm struck Chicagoland with such severity that the famed “city that works,” ground to a halt for days. As the snow piled up and the frustration dragged on, seething city residents looked for a place to direct their anger. They started looking at City Hall, and the rest is history.

The 1979 blizzard was a truly historic storm. Following another blizzard in 2011, meteorologists Jim Allsopp and Ricky Castro compiled a study on the four worst blizzards in Chicago history. They wrote that a previous blizzard, in 1967, actually dropped more snow, but that the 1979 storm was followed by even worse conditions: “a brutal arctic blast and (it) took the longest time to melt.” The 1979 snow also fell on top of existing snow pack from earlier storms, making it that much worse.

A wildly inaccurate forecast had predicted only a couple of inches of snow: the type of storm Chicagoans endure every year as a matter of course. When the storm hit, dropping more than a foot and a half of snow instead, it was of such severity that it would have strained the resources of any city.

The snow started falling on January 12, 1979. But even that is not an accurate description of the starting point, because the snow that fell as part of this blizzard was landing on top of snow left over from the six inches that had fallen on New Year’s Eve. For ten straight days, temperatures had reached zero or below zero, and never topped 20 degrees during that span. In spite of all this, when the snow started falling on the 12th, the city’s Snow Command took to the streets to begin plowing. But this storm was unique in its intensity and its relentlessness, and the plows were soon overwhelmed.

Chicago Magazine writer Whet Moser described what followed as, “A perfect storm of weather, clout and PR.”

Calamity followed calamity, as one piece of misfortune added to another. Some businesses opened on Saturday, the 13th, but soon closed, sending workers home in the brutal weather. The inevitable automobile accidents blocked streets, plows couldn’t get through and abandoned cars were soon covered with snow, jamming the streets even more. Those plows that were able to cover their routes were running out of places to put the quickly accumulating snow as piles rose to dangerous heights.

It was the disruption of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and its spinoff effects that might have had the most dire consequences for the city and its mayor. Allsopp and Castro note that, “CTA trains weren’t equipped for snow removal and couldn’t get through the deep snow pack.” A week before the storm, a Chicago Tribunewriter noted that, “the CTA has no foul weather emergency plan worthy of the name.” Complaints about the CTA and its handling of winter weather had been coming in by the thousands, and that was beforethe blizzard.

Through the weekend, the snow kept coming, finally stopping in the early morning of Sunday the 14th. Buses were still running, albeit with delays, and the city’s expressways seemed to be flowing. Main streets had been plowed, but not side streets. The mass transit lines were not working, and that problem was getting worse every day.

Michael Bilandic had become mayor in 1976 following the death of the legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley. He won a special election in the spring of 1977 and was a candidate for a full term in the upcoming 1979 race. Initially, he had gotten praise for his and the city’s handling of the blizzard. On Tuesday the 16th, the Tribune editorialized, “Mayor Michael Bilandic, for instance, has shown a high degree of leadership in coping with winter’s worst, and the city’s snow fighters have been living up to his example…His office has produced a number of imaginative plans for easing the paralysis, such as giving priority to snow clearance from 250 school and park district lots so that private cars can be moved there while plows clear the streets.”

Residents were about to learn that the city’s public statements were only tenuously connected to the reality of the situation. That “imaginative plan” of moving cars to plowed parking lots was about to become a ticking time bomb.

Somewhere along the line, the planning failed to meet the execution. On Wednesday the 17th, Bilandic reported that over 100 of these lots were open, when in fact they were not. Police began ticketing parked cars, snowed in or otherwise. When residents complained that the lots they were supposed to move their cars to were still not plowed, Bilandic replied, “we wouldn’t be advertising them if they weren’t clear,” according to the Tribune. He also responded to a question about tickets being issued to the elderly or the sick, saying, “if there are hardship cases, they can tell that to a judge.”

The next day, a photo appeared in the Tribune showing the reportedly-plowed lot at Chappel School still covered in snow. The city revised its list of plowed lots, cutting the number to 53, half of what the mayor said on the 17th, and one-fifth of what had been in the original “imaginative plan.”

As the snow emergency neared the one week mark, the problems with the CTA exploded to the forefront. Bilandic told the public that the CTA was running fine, when in fact it was doing anything but.

Because some streets were still not cleared, more commuters were forced to use the trains, which were now filling up with passengers farther back up the line than usual. Consequently, there was no room left on the trains, and so they started skipping stops closer to the center of the city, stranding would-be passengers on the sub-freezing elevated platforms. Eventually, the CTA formalized this policy, closing 14 stations on the Lake and Dan Ryan El lines during rush hour. This decision was eventually overturned after public outcry, but the damage was already done.

At the same time, the CTA trains that were running were starting to break down. To clear the tracks, the CTA had instructed engineers to smash through the snow, sometimes using the front of the train like a battering ram. To get the necessary force, the engineers had to use as much power as possible, putting terrible strain on the motors. On other trains, salt was accumulating and doing its own kind of damage. The effect was the loss of more than 600 motors on CTA trains following the blizzard.

The service interruptions only got worse. The longer this went on, the more infuriating it got for the public. Politicians were about to make it worse.

“It wouldn’t be a true Chicago political disaster without clout,” writes Moser.

On January 24th, while the city was still digging out, it was learned that the city’s painfully inadequate plan for dealing with a major snowstorm was the product of a former deputy mayor, Kenneth Sain, who was now working as a contractor. Sain had gotten a $90,000 paycheck for coming up with the strategy to deal with the blizzard. It was a plan which hadn’t even been turned in on time. The details, such as they were, proved to be even more maddening.

The “plan” for which the city had doled out that $90,000 mostly consisted of maps, ads for equipment and revised portions of a plan first adopted in 1967. It turned out that this effort wasn’t the only thing Sain was working on: the former city official had almost a quarter of a million dollars in city contracts.

This was the last straw.

Suddenly, frustrated Chicagoans were counting the days until they could make their voices heard at the ballot box.

Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne
Opposing Bilandic was the former head of the city’s consumer affairs department, Jane Byrne. Byrne had been part of the Daley administration before she was fired by Bilandic in 1977. She had not been given much of a chance against Bilandic, who had the backing of the old Daley machine, but now things had changed. Sure, there were other issues in play, and maybe after Mayor Daley’s long reign people were just ready for a change. But the disastrous response to the blizzard seemed to encapsulate every frustration the people of Chicago had with their city government in 1979.

Byrne ran hard against the mayor, accusing him of incompetence in dealing with the blizzard. She filmed advertisements in front of snow-clogged streets, and took the city administration to task for failing in its duty. When voters went to the polls, they narrowly gave Byrne the edge, as she beat Bilandic 51-49 on her way to becoming the first woman to serve as mayor of a major American city.

Chicago and other American cities have been struck by numerous severe winter storms in the 40 years since the Blizzard of 1979. Each time, city leaders have worked hard to get on top of the emergency and to keep their citizens accurately informed about what is happening and what the city is doing about it. All have seemingly learned the lesson of Chicago in 1979: a snowstorm really can swing an election.