Jory Danielson remembers the Halloween blizzard of 1991 like it was yesterday.
He was just 13 years old when the epic blizzard dumped almost a foot of snow 30 years ago in the Brainerd lakes area, and he assures anyone the snowstorm was not one easy to forget.
“It was my last year of trick-or-treating so it was pretty memorable walking through snow,” he said of the Brainerd lakes area in 1991. “I don't remember a whole lot of snow in the beginning. But by the time it was done and I was heading home, it was pretty close to my knees.”
Danielson is now the maintenance supervisor for the Crow Wing County Highway Department. He is responsible for the snowplows that clear county highways and county roads of snow.
“What is funny is how that event impacts me today … and making sure that all of our plows are ready to go by Oct. 1, just to be extra prepared. And we have everything in place by Halloween, so if we get that call out we are on the road within minutes,” Danielson said.
Snowplows usually will not be dispatched for typical snow events until after a snowfall has ceased, according to county officials.
“Some of our guys weren't even alive in ‘91 that are plowing snow right now, so I also find that kind of comical that they don't know what a lot of us are talking about,” Danielson said Wednesday, Oct. 27.
The county maintains over 640 miles of roadway and right of way and bridges. County highways and roads — and roads in the First and Second assessment districts — are maintained by the highway department.
“Thinking back to that Halloween storm of ‘91 dictates how we prepare for winter every year and it's in the back of our minds,” said Danielson, who had no inkling as a child of his future occupation.
Danielson has nothing but fond childhood memories of the blizzard of ‘91. The father of three said his daughters have no thoughts about the event and It has no impact on his oldest.
Danielson said he went trick-or-treating as a ghoul in 1991 — going from door to door in Crosby — and had no inkling of the unusual weather that was in store for him and others like him that Halloween.
“I only had one thing on my mind at that time, and that was getting as much candy as possible, so hanging out with friends — getting candy was our mission for that day — and we were oblivious to everything else,” Danielson said.
“We were tromping through all that snow with full bags of candy. And we did do pretty well because the snow sent a lot of the kids home early so we made a haul that year.”
The Halloween blizzard of ‘91 has almost become legendary in the minds of trick-or-treating children who braved it. And even for those who have only heard about it, the Halloween blizzard has attained near-mythical status.
“I had always liked Halloween — I’ve got a really good sweet tooth — so it was a free day for me to get a bunch of candy,” Danielson said. “And knowing that I was getting older and it was going to be my last year, I was all in on filling my bag with candy — and that happened.”
“It could have been a hurricane and I was determined to go out trick-or-treating that year, so anything could have happened, and I would have been oblivious and just forged ahead.”
‘Foot of snow’
The Brainerd lakes area that year in 1991 recorded 11 inches of snow between Oct. 31 and Nov. 3, according to the National Weather Service-Duluth.
“It was a little bit of extra work going through that snow,” Danielson said of Halloween as a child in Crosby. “But I had enough sugar in the bag to keep me fueled throughout the endless city walking or block-to-block walking. I was probably in a sugar coma for one week afterward.”
Last winter, the county introduced the “Where’s My Snowplow?” link, a web-based map that uses GPS to track the 15 county snowplows and show their current locations. The map tracks in near real time and updates every five minutes during snow events. But it did not exist in 1991.
“We also have a much better forecast, you know, than 30 years ago, so we can, for the most part, see a storm coming and be a little bit better prepared than I believe they were in ‘91,” Danielson said.
“I think most of it was is just it took everybody by surprise.”
— Jory Danielson
The significance of the blizzard of ‘91 was so much snow fell over a wide area so early in the year, according to Jonathan Wolfe, a lead meteorologist at the National Weather Service-Duluth.
For the Brainerd lakes area to receive almost a foot of snow during the Halloween of 1991 was “pretty rare,” Wolfe said — something that only happens “once every probably 30, 40 years.”
“I do remember it kind of being a rainy, wet snow when we started off,” Danielson said. “I only remember — with a full bag of candy, worrying the handles were going to break and tromping through snow up to my knees, making my way back home — being quite happy with the bounty I’d just received.”
Danielson said most people who experienced the snowstorm remember how surprised they were and how caught off guard they were by the snow.
“I've heard a few stories from some of our veteran drivers that they weren't prepared, that they got called out and had to scramble and had trouble even getting to some of the outlying shops because the snow had piled up so quickly and unexpectedly,” Danielson said of snowplows.
Caught off guard
The “Halloween Blizzard,” as it became known in most of the state — and the “Halloween Ice Storm” as it was referred to in Iowa — began moving quickly northeastward through the Mississippi Valley on Oct. 31, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.
“I think most of it was is just it took everybody by surprise. It's not all that uncommon to get a little bit of snow flurry in October. But to have to be plowing that early … took everybody off guard,” Danielson said. “They were expecting it to melt or just not really accumulate like it did.”
As much as 3 inches of ice downed power lines and poles across the state, leaving at least 20,000 people without power, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.
Tamela Tkalcich is one of those Brainerd lakes area residents who was stressed out by the blizzard. She gave birth to a girl prematurely on Oct. 28, 1991.
“She was 10 days early and as a result, she weighed 1 to 2 pounds less than her siblings did. Believe me, that 1 to 2 pounds makes a big difference in how fragile that little life seems,” Tkalcich recalled. “The Friday after her birth, I had to bring her back to the hospital to have her bilirubin checked. It was high, but they sent us home with orders to put her in a sunny window and to bring her back if she got worse. … There was no sunny window, a blizzard had struck our area,” Tkalcich said.
According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, at least 20 people in the state died in traffic accidents or from heart attacks while digging out from the storm, and the governor declared a state of emergency in two counties. More than 900 schools and businesses were closed Nov. 1 in Minnesota, and several roofs collapsed under the weight of the ice and snow.
“I fretted and worried and prayed,” Tkalcich said of her then-newborn. “‘Was she worse?’ It was so hard to tell. Even if she was worse, there was no driving the 15 miles to Brainerd. The snow was really piling up! ‘What should I do? What could I do?’”
A woman by the name of Jo Radniecki answered Tkalcich’s prayers with a knock on the new mother’s door during the blizzard of 1991. The stranger heard about the newborn and did perhaps the most Minnesotan thing imaginable: She paid the baby and new mother a visit.
“She had come 2 miles through that horrible storm to assure me all was well,” Tkalcich said. “She was a nurse and had worked in the nursery at the hospital. She had seen much worse than my little one. I could put my mind at ease. What a blessed answer to prayer!”
Three decades later that baby girl — now a grown woman — encouraged her mother to share her story about the Halloween blizzard of ‘91 with the Brainerd Dispatch.