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The great Tampa Bay snow of '89
By Jon Wilson
Published December 12, 2007
Editor's note: In 1997, with a big cold front approaching the state of Florida around Christmas time, a gruff old editor asked one of his reporters to regale the readers with a historical look back at an unprecedented event: snow in Tampa Bay in the year of '89. Did the flakes come down? Or did we just imagine it? Read on to find out.
Perhaps it began as a lazy puddle of cool air, ill-formed, callow, inclined to hang out in seedy Arctic troughs rather than find direction in life.
But as late November darkened to December 1989, the infant air mass fattened.
Feeding off frosty Canadian tundra and long, cold nights, it squatted day after day, ballooning, muscling, maturing until it became a frigid berserker swinging a mace of ice and snow.
With no place to go.
Until a wind came training out of the northwest and pulled the barbarian aboard.
Until the jet stream bowed deeply, creating the perfect chute for a southbound express freighting winter-bound for Florida.
St. Petersburg residents remember.
The Arctic air reached us about 48 hours before Christmas Day. Before it left, it gave us record low temperatures and intermittent power blackouts.
It also helped produce what might have been The Perfect Snow -- storied, a thing of lore, elusive, but enough to cast here and there the celebrated holiday hue.
Whatever dropped from the sky wasn't recorded as the real thing.
St. Petersburg experienced sleet, the records say. The official flakes stopped somewhere north of Tampa Bay, they claim. Don't tell us that.
On Dec. 23, a Saturday, south Pinellas County expected flurries. Eyes turned to the sky.
And off and on during the day, people reported spying feather-like matter drifting down. Eskimos, said to have two dozen words to describe various kinds of snow, probably would have called this variety qannik, suggesting a fall of no special consequence.
But here, a blizzard is a blizzard.
St. Petersburg firefighter Rob Edwards witnessed it in eastern St. Petersburg.
"There was snow," recalled Edwards, whose crew at Station No. 3 had responded to a report of downed wires. "The street was white as it could be. And there was snow on the side of the street covering everything."
The low hit 35 in St. Petersburg that day, recorded at Pinellas Point. St. Pete Beach went to 36 and Pinellas Park 35.
Sunday, Dec. 24, the icicle dropped right down our necks.
Christmas Day 1983 was even colder, but this was Florida's coldest Christmas Eve. The temperature plummeted to 28 degrees in St. Petersburg. It was 24 in Tampa, where Tampa Stadium's soft-drink machines froze while 29,690 fans watched the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Bucs 31-22.
Since then, no December days have been colder here.
The chill started teasing Dec. 22, a Friday. St. Petersburg's high was 54, and holiday partiers that evening noticed the temperature dropping.
That same day, 125 cities across the nation reported record lows. And on Thursday, an Amtrak train froze to the tracks in North Dakota while Chicago broke a 117-year-old record with a low of 13 below zero.
The Arctic Barbarian was working its way south.
"State-of-the-art cold," said Ronnie Perkins, a resident of Nashville, where the low was minus-10 on both Dec. 22 and Dec. 23.
Asheville, N.C., set a record with its low reading of 1 above zero Dec. 23.
"It dropped in just a few hours," Asheville resident Myra Ramsey recalled. "I had poinsettias outside and they fell over dead in about two minutes."
That day was the snow day in St. Petersburg.
At least once before, it had fallen in St. Petersburg officially.
On Jan. 19, 1977, snow dropped all over the state, including a half-inch recorded for the Tampa Bay area.
But never had it snowed this close to Christmas.
Conditions looked just right on Dec. 23, 1989.
Clouds lurked in the Gulf of Mexico, waiting to throw a wet blanket at the Arctic Barbarian.
Cold collided with moisture.
That morning, on the field behind St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, a touch football game heaved to and fro, a traditional holiday fray. Players reported the cold stiffened their limbs and cast their faces into perpetual grimaces that even brandy could not undo.
In the gray of the day, they seemed as gargoyles lurching and blocking, breath escaping in steamy huffs.
Sometime that Saturday, a wisp of vapor -- from where, who knows? -- turned into a water drop. Wind carried it aloft and bounced it through freezing air.The droplet must have been tossed about for quite a while, because it had time to sprout stems and slivers and tiny prisms until it grew so heavy it began to float to earth like a feather.
Followed by another.
And for an instant everyone's power came back on . . . didn't it? And wasn't there a chorus singing joy?
Next day's dawn brought clear skies and the coldest Christmas Eve.
A day or two later, the Arctic Barbarian went south, where it lives today in the Leeward Islands as a breeze rattling palm fronds.
The Amtrak train unfroze from its tracks, and now the engine pulls coal out of Wyoming toward Omaha.
Myra Ramsey bought more poinsettias.
The Bucs kept playing and finally made the playoffs.
Rob Edwards is a fire lieutenant at St. Petersburg's Station No. 6.
The touch football players got old and took up warm-weather sports.
And the feathers that fell out of the sky . . . they survive in memory.