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A sudden unpredicted storm

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Eric Bergeson Detroit Lakes, 56501

Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

As storm after March storm rumbles through the area, people inevitably blame the weather forecasters for both the weather that comes and that which doesn't. 

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So much just depends. It depends whether the storm tracks north or tacks south. It depends whether the moist air from the south hits the cold air from the north. 

It depends upon the jet stream. It depends upon the time of year. It depends whether this storm behaves like the average storm predicted by the computer models or whether, due to the phase of the moon, it takes an odd twist. 

For the months of March and April, it seems that the forecasters tack a 50-degree reading up on the end of the extended forecast just to tantalize the winter-sick masses. 

There it stays for weeks, that 50 degree reading seven days from now, the cruel carrot on a stick that continually eludes our grasp. 

But as imperfect as weather forecasting will always be, it still improves every year. And even if the storm doesn't hit, people are warned that it might. 

Fewer and fewer people remember the deadly, unpredicted blizzard in March 1941, but the stories remain. 

A beautiful Saturday afternoon encouraged farm families to take their usual Saturday expedition to town for shopping and entertainment. 

As some headed home early in the evening, the storm hit with the thunder of an approaching freight train. 

With awesome suddenness, winds in excess of eighty miles-per-hour drove heavy, stinging snowfall, which reduced visibility to absolutely nothing.

Temperatures plunged from above freezing to below zero. 

Hundreds were stranded in stalled cars. Businesses stayed open all night for people who hadn't yet left for home. It was impossible to navigate from building to building, even in towns. Some buildings were pushed off their foundations.

Most of those who left their vehicles were doomed. Several were found dead in farmyards, only a few feet from a safe place they didn't know was within their reach. 

According to one historian, the cause of death for most was not exposure to the cold but rather suffocation from the high winds saturated with gritty snow. They died because they couldn't breathe. 

Even those who stayed in their cars suffered frostbite and some fatalities. 

Eighty people died in the blizzard and hundreds more barely escaped to tell about it. 

The blizzard was made more deadly because it was utterly unpredicted. Perhaps a few people stayed home because Grandpa's arthritic knee was barking. Maybe some noticed the cows acting funny, or analyzed the clucking of the chickens, or the nervousness of the dog, and knew to stay put. 

But without radar and modern forecasting techniques, people had no solid way to know that their Saturday night trip to town would turn into a nightmare.  

And those with the responsibility to predict the storm at the time were asleep at the wheel. In Chicago. 

Yes, the Weather Service office responsible for predicting storms in our area was based in Chicago. The tragedy forced the opening of local offices which could respond more quickly. 

Dangerous blizzards have occurred since. But none packed the deadly punch of the great blizzard of 1941. 

Assignment for the week: Find an old-timer and ask them where they were when the Blizzard of March 1941 hit. If they were over ten years old, I'll bet they'll remember every detail. 

My great-aunt Olive was stuck in a one-room schoolhouse, responsible for a couple of dozen students and alums who had come for a Saturday night party. 

The porous schoolhouse walls didn't do much to keep out the cold wind. So, Olive had the older students bring in blankets from their cars. They built a tent around the stove. 

All night they sang songs and played games in their blanket fort, while Olive tried to make sure the place didn't go up in flames due to a chimney fire.

Due to the party, they had plenty of food, mostly sweets. "We had a great time!" one of her students says today. 

The school had no phone. Parents had no clue where their children were. And nobody could go out to search. 

A neighboring farmer rescued the gang with a sleigh the next morning and the bunch sat out the remainder of the blizzard in a nice farm home with home-cooked food. 

A big adventure, yes, but one that thankfully, with our improved if imperfect weather forecasting system, would never happen today. 

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