January 1999: Record snowstorm slams Southern Michigan, Great Lakes region

New Year's snowstorm hits region, stranding thousands, killing more than 100

Man snow blowing (Photo by Jordan Silverman/Getty Images)

DETROIT - The start of 1999 around the Great Lakes region and Southern Ontario was one to remember.

Starting on Jan. 1, 1999, a storm - what some call the "North American blizzard of 1999" - began to dump nearly two feet of snow in areas from Iowa to Toronto, halting holiday travel for hundreds of thousands.

The hardest-hit area was Chicago, which saw a whopping 21.6 inches of snow. Most of the snow fell between Jan. 2 and Jan. 4.

Heavy snow was accompanied by high wind gusts, creating dangerous travel conditions.

The snow began to fall in Michigan during the early hours of Jan. 2, causing huge headaches for travelers, especially at Detroit Metro Airport -- arguably the hardest-hit airport in the storm. 

In Detroit, a shortage of snowplows, combined with the subsequent cold weather, left some streets blocked for more than a week.

Much of the information you'll read below is from a National Weather Service report on the storm in Michigan.

Here's how much snow each Southern Michigan county saw in the storm (NWS):

  • Bay County: 11" in Essexville; 9" in Linwood and Bay City.
  • Genesee County: 7 to 10" in the Fenton/Linden area; 9" in Flushing and Flint.
  • Huron County: 10" near Kinde and Verona; 7" in Bad Axe; 6" in Port Hope.
  • Lapeer County: 12" in Imlay City; anywhere from 6 to 12" near the city of Lapeer; 9" in Dryden.
  • Lenawee County: 16" in Tecumseh; 14" in Clinton; 12" in Hudson and Morenci; 10" in Adrian.
  • Livingston County: 10" in Brighton; 8" in Howell.
  • Macomb County: 17" near Mt Clemens; 15" in Roseville; 12" in Romeo, Richmond, and St Clair Shores; 11" near New Baltimore.
  • Midland County: 10" in the city of Midland; 7" in Mount Haley Township.
  • Monroe County: 14" in Milan Township; 13" in the city of Monroe and Dundee.
  • Oakland County: 15" in Royal Oak; 14" in Ferndale; 13" in South Lyon; 12" in Milford, Clarkston, and White Lake; 11" in West Bloomfield; 10" in Rochester Hills, Farmington, and Waterford; 8" in Holly and Oxford.
  • St Clair County: 13" in Port Huron; 11" in Ruby; 6 to 12" in Yale; 8" in Avoca.
  • Saginaw County: 10" in Frankenmuth; 9" in St Charles; 8" in the city of Saginaw; 6" in Freeland.
  • Sanilac County: 9 to 11" in Marlette; 7 to 10" in Sandusky; 9" in Croswell; 7" in Brown City.
  • Shiawassee County: 9" in Owosso; 6 to 9" in Byron; 7" in Morrice; 6" in Corunna.
  • Tuscola County: 9 to 11" in Caro; 9" in Cass City; 8" in Akron; 7 to 9" in Vassar; 7" in Millington.
  • Washtenaw County: 16" in Ann Arbor; 15" in Dexter; 13 to 16" in Saline; 12" in Ypsilanti.
  • Wayne County: 14" in Plymouth; 12 to 14" in Northville; 13" in Dearborn; 12" in Westland, Harper Woods, Canton, Wyandotte, and Grosse Pointe Farms; 11" in Romulus.

Drifts up to 7 feet high were reported in Lenawee, Monroe, and Washtenaw counties.

ALSO SEE: Detroit's 25 heaviest snow storms in history

President Bill Clinton would eventually declare Lenawee, Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties as federal disaster areas.

Trouble at Detroit Metro Airport

Detroit Metro Airport (DTW) was severely impacted by the storm. DTW remained open on Jan. 2, but visibility at DTW, combined with deteriorating conditions at other airports in the region, resulted in few (if any) incoming and outgoing flights from afternoon on.

After closing to clean the runways on the morning of Jan. 3 (a Sunday), DTW reopened to incoming flights. Unfortunately, although the runways were clear, an insufficient number of arrival/departure gates were usable. By the time this was realized, and incoming air traffic halted, close to 50 planes had landed at DTW without a place to disembark.

ALSO SEE: Remembering America's worst tornado ever: The Tri-State Tornado of 1925

In an incident that received national media attention, some passengers were stranded in their planes for eight hours until they could disembark. Full operations at DTW would not be resumed until Jan. 6.

In 2001, Northwest Airlines settled a class action lawsuit with more than 7,000 stranded passengers, agreeing to pay $7.1 million. Some passengers spent as long as 11 hours on grounded planes.

Freezing temperatures invade Michigan after snowstorm

As if the snowstorm wasn't enough to deal with, the climate following the snow was frigid. 

After a high of around 10 degrees on the Jan. 4, temperatures nose-dived that night. The mercury plunged to -10 at Detroit Metro Airport, Adrian - and Ypsilanti, and -13 at Ann Arbor and Tecumseh.

It was not until late afternoon on Jan. 5 before temperatures rose to above zero. By midnight, the temperature at Detroit Metro Airport had risen all the way to 6 degrees.

The cold caused three deaths in Oakland County, all on Jan. 4. In Pontiac, a man froze to death while walking home early in the morning. An elderly woman somehow walked out of a nursing home in Troy early in the morning; she was found dead in the driveway later in the morning.

In West Bloomfield, a man was found frozen to death; the exact circumstances of his
death were unknown.

The bitter cold caused numerous cases of frostbite. Injuries were reported near Pontiac and in Shelby Township on Jan. 4.

On Jan. 5, a single hospital in Westland reported that "dozens suffered from exposure and frostbite." 

The cold resulted in over 120 water main breaks in the city of Detroit. A very large water main
ruptured in downtown Adrian, causing a water shortage for its 22,000 residents.

Paul Gross recalls the 1999 snowstorm

Boy do I remember that storm.  First of all, we were coming out of a very quiet fall in which we set a record for the latest first measurable snowfall in recorded Detroit weather History (December 16th). So we really hadn’t had much wintry precipitation to that point.  

The week leading up to the storm (it hit on a Saturday, and I was working the evening newscasts for Chuck Gaidica that week), I suspected on Monday that we’d be looking at a storm on Saturday, so I cautiously mentioned that on the air, and kept with that forecast on Tuesday.  

Then on Wednesday, I saw something that I hadn’t seen before in my career up to that point: all three of the longer range (72 hour) computer models at my disposal projected our storm to be in the exact same place at 7am Saturday.  The charts looked identical.  

In fact, I double-checked to make sure that one of them hadn’t somehow been duplicated onto another chart. I was shocked because, three days in advance, there are always going to be differences in the models.  And remember that this is 1999…our models weren’t nearly as advanced then as they are today.  

So I told that newsroom that I was getting increasingly confident about a big Saturday snowstorm, and the decision was made to lead our evening newscasts with weather. Even today, we generally won’t lead the newscast with weather about a storm three days in advance.  

The storm unfolded right on schedule, with light snow developing Saturday morning (I remember taking my family to meet my wife’s father and stepmother for breakfast at a restaurant on Northwestern Highway, and conditions hadn’t become too bad yet). But the snow picked up and, by storm’s end, a general ten-to-eleven inch snowfall had accumulated.  

Those of you old enough may recall how snow removal operations at Metro Airport did a very poor job, and some planes got stranded on tarmacs, with some passengers stranded on those planes for eight hours (including my wife’s aunt and uncle).  

It was such a big story that Dateline: NBC did a story about it, which included a clip of me talking about the potential storm on Local 4 News several days before it hit…this storm was not a surprise, and airport operations should have been ready.  

The two weeks that followed was one of the harshest stretches of winter weather we’ve ever experienced, and I was out in the severe winter elements for seven of the next ten days reporting in our morning newscasts.  

It was during this stretch that I received the most memorable comment that I’ve ever received from a viewer:  a woman who told me that the advice I had given in one of my live reports saved her life. You never forget when somebody tells you that.

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