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1996: B.C. digs out from huge blizzard

The Story

It hit in the night with little warning, leaving thousands of unsuspecting British Columbians either scrambling for shovels or praying for warmer weather. Over four long days in late December "The Blizzard of '96" dumped an improbable 150 cm of snow (nearly five feet) on the traditionally temperate lower B.C. area, crippling public transit and paralyzing day-to-day life. In this clip, CBC Television reporter Terry Milewski checks in with bewildered west coast residents as they deal with their biggest bout of winter in nearly 80 years.B.C.'s snowstorm began on the evening of Dec. 28, coating Victoria, Vancouver and parts of the lower Fraser Valley with nearly a metre of snow. The province's capital received the biggest wallop, with 65 cm of snow in just 24 hours, smashing a record set in 1916. But the worst was far from over for the region. With more snow in the forecast, the records would continue to break as the temperature continued to drop.

Medium: Television
Program: Sunday Report
Broadcast Date: Dec. 29, 1996
Guests: Ian Matheson, Tom Shalansky
Host: Jeffrey Kofman
Reporter: Terry Milewski
Duration: 3:39

Did You know?

• The Blizzard of '96 began on the weekend of Dec. 28-29, catching vacationing British Columbians with their guard down. Vancouver, which received a record one-day snowfall of 35 centimetres, was forced to shut down its public transit system including the Skytrain, the above-ground commuter railway.

• In the Fraser Valley, the storm closed stretches of the Trans-Canada highway between Abbotsford and Chilliwack, leaving hundreds of motorists stranded.

• By the time the snow finally melted on Jan. 1, at least two people had died and property damage was estimated at $200 million.

• According to the Globe and Mail, one person died in Burnaby in a head-on collision while a man in Victoria was asphyxiated after his idling car got stuck in a snowdrift.

• Life in Victoria, the "Garden City", ground to a halt in the wake of the storm. Roofs caved in under the weight of the snow, hospital patients were left waiting for surgery and the military was called in to help clear the streets.

• The City of Victoria, which receives an average of 15 centimetres of snow in December, had only one snowplough and a miniscule budget for snow removal. People resorted to cross-country skis to run errands and the fire department had to dust off vintage horse-drawn equipment to answer calls.

• In this clip Terry Milewski says the previous record one-day snowfall occurred in 1937. In fact, the record was set in Victoria on Feb. 13, 1916, when the city received 55 cm of snow.

• While local newspapers were reporting on the emergency, most people couldn't get their hands on copies of that day's paper. Most television stations struggled to get new reports on the air, leaving local talk-radio stations as the only outlet for news.

• One Victoria station, CFAX, became a community "bulletin board" that residents used to ask for help in shovelling, food delivery or transportation.

• Despite the inconvenience, the community's response to the emergency was heralded as an example of the city's community spirit.

• "In an age of cocooning," read a Jan. 7 Globe and Mail article, "Many Victorians felt they had rediscovered a social fabric that had long been missing, as neighbours came together to help dig each other out."

• In addition to many flight cancellations at area airports, all ferry service between Vancouver Island and Vancouver was also cancelled. The inclement weather even forced the postponement of a hockey game in Vancouver between the Canucks and the San Jose Sharks.

• Power outages and snow damage forced more than 3,000 people into emergency shelters in Chilliwack and Abbotsford, just east of Vancouver.

• The military was called in to help rescue more than 250 motorists stranded, at times in drifts of up to three metres high, along highways and roads in the Fraser Valley. Others were rescued by nearby farmers, who pitched in by providing food and lodging.

• The successful effort was called "the most significant and intense life-saving operation carried out in British Columbia in many years" in a report from B.C.'s Provincial Emergency Program.

• Continuing snow and frozen rain on Dec. 30 hampered efforts to dig out from the storm, but warmer weather returned by Dec. 31.

• The more seasonal weather prompted concern over flash flooding, with nearly 200,000 sandbags set up in Victoria and the Fraser Valley as preparation.

• Rain and mild flooding washed out some roads and sparked landslides that blocked areas of some others, but no one was seriously injured.

Also on December 28:

• 1763: John Molson is born in Spalding, England. In 1786, he founded a brewery in Montreal that bears his name.
• 1793: Upper Canada Governor John Graves Simcoe orders the building of Toronto's main road, Yonge Street.
• 1842: Calixa Lavalée is born in Verchéres, Quebec. He composed the music for what would become Canada's national anthem, "O Canada".


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