The Nation-Wide Impact of Superstorm 1950

Purdue University Press spoke with author David A. Call about his book Superstorm 1950: The Greatest Simultaneous Blizzard, Ice Storm, Windstorm, and Cold Outbreak of the Twentieth Century

Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?

It is about Superstorm 1950, one of the most intense, deadliest, and expensive storms of the twentieth century. Superstorm 1950 brought incredible weather phenomena to most the United States and caused significant short- and long-term effects. These effects varied depending on race, class, and gender. Superstorms today continue have the potential to cripple large portions of the country for extended periods, and the differences in effects based on race, class, and gender are still concerning. Understanding such storms and their impacts will help us prepare for the next one.

Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?

I was curious about the storm, but little had been written on it. The incredible weather phenomena observed—temperatures plummeting due to winds coming from the south in Buffalo, three-degree weather in Atlanta in November, winds gusting over 100 miles per hour in New England, and how people coped with them—were worthy of further investigation. I was also motived because we hear the term superstorm, but it has no formal definition.  Meteorologists should work to define this term before it is defined for us. I start that process in this book.

Q: What are a few things that are being studied for the first time in this book?

Most of this is new. I am unaware of research on the impacts of the storm other than a book done on the impacts in Ohio. There is little formal research on its impacts on early computer model simulations, and as mentioned the term superstorm has not been formally defined.

Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?

Some surprises were how much greater the fire risk was due to substandard heating systems and even such simple things like flammable children’s pajamas (children’s pajamas today are less likely to catch on fire). Another surprise was the ingenuity of those affected in repurposing motors to power things and using alternative heating and light sources. I also found it fascinating that people walked miles in the snow and acted as if it was normal.

Q: What some technological and/or methodological changes in storm reporting and disaster response that can be traced to Superstorm 1950?

Disaster response today has been “federalized.” We look to FEMA to help during the storm and to Congress to fund rebuilding afterwards. In 1950, disaster response was mostly at the local, and to a lesser extent, the state level. Another big difference is that in 1950, people largely paid to repair things themselves—insurance was much less robust, and as mentioned, government didn’t provide much aid.

Q: Do you think the impact of sociological factors is similar in other areas of scientific study, or is the role of this information in meteorology distinct? 

In the past twenty years or so the meteorological community has become much more interested in social impacts of weather. Deaths from weather disasters have stopped decreasing while costs have skyrocketed. Forecasts and warnings have become of such quality that deaths from events, such as tornadoes, are largely due to social factors such as substandard structures, people not acting on warnings, etc. as opposed to forecast quality. Increases in costs from disasters can be somewhat blamed on climate change, but the much bigger factors are increased vulnerability. Structures are worth more, we have large amounts of sprawl, and development in disaster-prone areas such as coastal areas and flood plains has exploded.  Meteorologists need to continue to expand their understanding of social factors and how they impact warning response and disasters in general. Forming partnerships with geographers, hazards specialists, and emergency managers is invaluable.

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