Memories of 1977 deep freeze and other January misery

Published 4:40 pm Tuesday, January 11, 2022

January is not my favorite month. As a general rule, it’s then that we expect the worst of winter, even though we know February and March can supply more than their share of inclemency — and the misery that accompanies it.

To make January even more agonizing, our calendar-writing ancestors decided it should be one of the seven longest months. And so, we plough through its 31 days, just waiting for nature to drop the other shoe.

Looking back through old copies of The Smithfield Times (this passes for recreation for retired editors), there has been plenty of winter discomfort in past Januarys, most of it brought about by frigid temperatures rather than blizzards.

(I found it interesting, though, that back in the 1930s and ’40s, the paper paid little heed to the weather, even though historically, there were some pretty severe cold spells back then. Could be that we just whine more than our ancestors did.)

Most memorable of January freezes is the winter of 1977. The temperatures barely got above freezing for the better part of two weeks. The James River froze over, and Jamestown ferries were ice-bound in their slips. Natural gas became so scarce that businesses were forced to cut their hours of operation to conserve the precious heating fuel, and electric production at Surry Power Station was reduced because of ice clogging the James River coolant water intake.

A second example, this one in 1985, played havoc with the community’s beloved crepe myrtle trees. December 1984 and January 1985 had been exceptionally warm when a massive cold front moved through and the mercury went to 8-below-zero in some areas. The trunks of old crepe myrtles froze and split open in the cold. The freeze killed well over a thousand of the ornamentals in the area.

Despite a few more examples, none quite so severe as those, Hampton Roads residents generally fare better than other areas. In fact, Southeast Virginia is a far better place to live than much of the country.

When winter storms approach, this corner of Virginia is most often the dividing line where the snow and ice end and the rain begins, as it did early last week when a massive winter storm flanked our corner of the Old Dominion, bringing much-needed rain and not-so-welcome winds, but no significant damage. If we are getting slammed here in Hampton Roads by truly bad winter weather, be it snow and ice or brutal temperatures, then it’s a pretty good bet that folks to the north and west of us are having it worse — usually, much worse.

Being on the temperature dividing line isn’t always pleasant, however. Depending on where the thermometer’s mercury resides at any given moment, that line between frozen and wet precipitation can deliver a sucker punch in the form of freezing rain. While snow and sleet can make roads slippery and travel hazardous, freezing rain can make matters far, far worse.

The two worst examples of freezing rain occurred here in December, not January. In fact, the latter part of December and the first half of February seem to bookend January very nicely in the category of winter misery.

In 1989, a winter storm lasted for two days, and on the second day, freezing rain played havoc. Acre upon acre of pine trees were snapped like toothpicks. Power lines were downed from ice frozen on them and falling tree limbs. Residents in Isle of Wight, Suffolk and Southampton were without power for up to a week. Fortunately, temperatures moderated, making powerless homes uncomfortable but livable.

Then, on Christmas Eve 1998, an eerily similar storm essentially isolated western Isle of Wight and all of Surry. Roads were completely blocked by ice-felled trees, and residents with chainsaws began digging their way out. An estimated 16,000 residents in that rural area were without power for days. This time, temperatures never moderated, and residents without power shivered while they waited.

There’s no way of knowing now what the remainder of this winter holds in store, but personally I’m always happy to see longer days and the approach of spring.

 

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.