Snow Daze: Remembering the 5 Biggest Blizzards to Hit Pennsylvania in the Last 30 Years

Tim Stevenson shovels snow against a railroad tie placed in front of a friend's driveway on Foster Avenue in Marshfield, Mass., March 13, 1993, as a winter storm moved into New England. The men hope this little barrier will keep sea water from rolling down the driveway and into the basement when the surf comes over the sea wall across the street. (AP Photo/Stephen Savoia)

By Robin Shreeves

December 2, 2022

Get out the shovels and ice melt. We’re looking back on the five biggest snowstorms of the past few decades.

Pennsylvania is a large state. About 300 miles separate its east and west borders. About 160 miles separate its north and south borders. In between those borders, weather can vary greatly. No matter what part of the state they live in, most people delight in a little snow falling from the sky— as long as it doesn’t disrupt life too much. 

But once snowplows, snow shovels, and school closings mix in with snowflakes, opinions vary on how wonderful snow is. What everyone can agree on, though, is that once snow starts to plummet a region causing dangerous, life threatening conditions, it’s an unwelcome situation. 

Throughout Pennsylvania’s history, there have been many unwelcome snowstorms and many of them have happened in the past 30 years. Here are 5 of the biggest snowstorms in the past few decades that wreaked havoc on Pennsylvanians, bringing extreme cold, freezing rain, snow, ice, and high winds, putting lives in jeopardy.

The Blizzard of ‘93

For three days in March of 1993, the East Coast was slammed with one of the worst blizzards in recorded history, and Pennsylvania was not spared the destruction of the Blizzard of ‘93, often referred to as The Storm of the Century. According to Only in Your State, 49 Pennsylvania residents lost their lives due to the storm that dumped 23.6 inches of snow in Pittsburgh, over 20 inches in Harrisburg, and about 13 inches in Philadelphia. 

The extent of the storm led then-Governor Robert P. Casey to declare a statewide state of emergency, the first one since the late 1970s when an ice storm blanketed much of the state. 

National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) reports the storm was a Category 5 and one of the most devastating storms of the 20th century, covering one of the largest areas ever recorded and affecting over 100 million people. It also caused the largest interruption of air travel due to weather in the United States to date.

Snow Daze: Remembering the 5 Biggest Blizzards to Hit Pennsylvania in the Last 30 Years
Industrial snow blowers shoot plooms of snow off a runway at the Philadelphia International Airport Monday, Jan. 8, 1996. A record 27.6 inches of snow fell in the Philadelphia area forcing the airport to close. (AP Photo/Chris Gardner)

The Blizzard of ‘96

1996 heard about the Blizzard of ‘93, and said, “hold my beer.” Another Category 5 storm, according to NCEI, it rivaled 1993 for “crippling snowfall.” From January 8-9, from Central Virginia up to southwestern Massachusetts, an average of 30 inches of snow fell, but Philadelphia got a whopping 30.7 inches, over twice what it received in 1993. Berks Nostalgia reports that part of Berks County received “34 inches of snow, but the raging winds caused major drifts which made the snow pile up to 100 inches high in certain areas.”

After the blizzard came major flooding in parts of Pennsylvania, adding to the destruction caused by the storm in regions like the Wyoming Valley. Ten days after the storm, temperatures rose into the mid-60s, winds gusted at 40mph, and rain arrived causing the snow to melt quickly. The Wyoming River reached a level of up to 38 feet and forced an evacuation of the area. Fortunately, levees—reinforced after 1972’s Agnes Flood—held fast, according to Times Leader.

Snow Daze: Remembering the 5 Biggest Blizzards to Hit Pennsylvania in the Last 30 Years
An Amish woman who wished not to be identified, shovels a path at the Fairview Amish School during a blizzard in Ronks, Pa., Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Snowmageddon 2010

When was the first time you heard the term “snowmageddon?” Chances are it was in 2010 in the earlier days of social media when snow buried the mid-Atlantic and Facebook and Twitter users named the storm “Snowmageddon” or the “Snowpocalypse.” From Washington, D.C. up to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, snow all but shut down the region. 

In Pennsylvania, the storm that raged from February 5-6 buried much of the state in an average of 20 inches of snow. Then, just as everyone had dug out, a few days later another snowstorm hit. From February 5 to 11, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Philadelphia saw 44.3 inches of snow. Pittsburgh saw over 21 inches. And the whole country was talking about “Snowmageddon” on social media.

Snow Daze: Remembering the 5 Biggest Blizzards to Hit Pennsylvania in the Last 30 Years
A man walks next to a frozen Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. Over the weekend, as a blizzard pounded the East Coast. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

2016’s Winter Storm Jonas

The official snowfall total in Harrisburg was 30.2 inches when Winter Storm Jonas finished walloping the region from January 22-23, reports PennLive. Mechanicsburg saw even more, 36.9 inches. It is still the largest snowstorm the Harrisburg region has seen in terms of accumulation of snow. The storm was heaviest in central Pennsylvania, but other regions received significant snowfall, including Philadelphia with 22.4 inches.

Portions of the Pennsylvania Turnpike came to a standstill, stranding over 500 motorists for more than 24 hours prompting changes to how the Turnpike authorities prepare for storms. According to PennLive, the focus was brought to caching food and emergency supplies, looking into creating more access gates on the highway, and implementing “a new emergency alert system to motorists and improved communication with community partners and state agencies.”

Snow Daze: Remembering the 5 Biggest Blizzards to Hit Pennsylvania in the Last 30 Years
Frank Necci clears snow from St. Andrews Catholic Church, Friday, Dec. 29, 2017, in Erie, Pa. The cold weather pattern was expected to continue through the holiday weekend and likely longer, according to the National Weather Service, prolonging a stretch of brutal weather blamed for several deaths, crashes and fires. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Erie’s 2017 Christmas Snowfall

Dreaming of a ‘White Christmas” is one thing, having one that brings more than five feet of snow in about 60 hours from December 24-26 is another. But, in 2017, the Erie region saw 65.1 inches of snowfall in three days, according to Weather.com

“A stationary lake-effect snowband off Lake Erie”contributed to the extreme amount of snow that year. Erie Airport reported a record-breaking 34 inches of snow on Christmas Day. The three-day storm contributed a good portion to the record breaking 102.1 inches of snowfall in the Erie region, giving Erie more snow in one month than it usually sees in a year.

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