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Thursday, January 26, 2012

'Remember that big storm a couple or 35 years ago...?'

One of the more interesting stories I covered back in the day as a newspaper reporter was about the weather. I still remember the headline: “What’s With the Wacky Winter Weather?”

I’ve always been a sucker for alliteration.

That ran in my college newspaper one year when Flagstaff was hit by La Niña, which was 1995 or so. Winter that year was extremely mild, so much so that it was a frequent topic of conversation. I remember the temperature that whole season seemed to hover at 50, day and night, for months. I’m sure the temps varied but it barely snowed if at all, and there was a constant layer of thin clouds overhead, just enough to make everything look washed out.

La Niña is a weather phenomenon characterized by cool, dry weather conditions in this part of the world. It sure was sedate circa 1995. Maybe saying we were “hit” by La Niña is a little like saying we were swamped by a vacuum.

The heavy hitting actually comes from El Niño, the cranky brother of La Niña that brings untoward weather in the form of heavy precipitation.

Two years ago, we were seeing just how headstrong El Niño could be. From Jan. 18 through Jan. 23, several feet of snow and many inches of rain – up to 10 inches of rain in some areas – fell in Arizona, causing devastation to life and property. The Navajo Nation was buried under snow, requiring aerial relief for residents in remote areas. Flooding washed out homes in Black Canyon City in Yavapai County, along Tonto Creek in Gila County, and in Wenden in La Paz County. (Left: The entrance to Gisela, one of the Gila County communities affected by flooding during the winter storms in 2010.)

The National Weather Service has published an assessment encapsulating this storm. It's perfect for fans of weather data and can be found here.

This weather event was the biggest disaster I encountered since joining the Arizona Division of Emergency Management in March 2006. Besides being deployed for the first time with the state all-hazard incident management team to Wenden in response to flooding there, I became very familiar with other parts of my home state I’d never visited before, like Punkin Center and Gisela. (Left: Centennial Wash flooding Wenden in January 2010. Photo courtesy La Paz County.)

Growing up in Flagstaff meant knowing about (or, in my case, living through) the Great Snowstorm of 1967. This benchmark snowstorm was actually a couple of storms that basically ran into each other over Arizona. Flagstaff recorded 86 inches of snow; that’s more than 7 feet, although local lore would have that snowstorm dumping 12 feet of snow on us. I was a little kid, so 7 feet might as well have been 20 feet. (Right: Northern Arizona as seen from the air on Jan. 25, 2010.)

I was surprised to find out that even Gila Bend and Wickenburg got a few inches of snow from that storm.

Two years ago the third biggest winter storm hit Arizona, and my memories of it are becoming as blurry as the one that I saw firsthand when I was 4. The biggest difference is I can’t say I don’t know how to handle the next one that comes.

For winter preparedness tips, check out the links below as found on the Arizona Emergency Information Network:

Personal Preparedness

Home Preparedness

Winter Heating

Flu Info

Winter Flooding

Driver Safety

Pet Safety

Severe Weather Forecast

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