On December 21st 1996, it began to snow. Children and adults alike were thrilled to see the white flakes drift down from the sky. White Christmases are a rare occurrence in our temperate climate and seeing our beautiful city being blanketed in snow right before the big day was magical. On December 26th, snow began to fall again.
For the next several days, snow fell steadily piling up higher and higher. Between December 28th and 29th, over 65cm of snow fell on the Capital City, breaking Canadian records set in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto for the most snowfall in 24 hours. During this time, one can only imagine the delight the rest of Canada was feeling, watching Victoria experience a winter storm that most Canadians accept as a yearly reality. If there had been social media in 1996, the comments section would no doubt be abuzz with good natured snark from our fellow countrymen as they watched us struggle in the snow.
While it was certainly a fascinating occurrence, it was also marred by extreme infrastructural damage, a temporary transportation emergency and grave concern for citizens. The snow that accumulated was too much for our West Coast construction and when the freezing rain hit on December 30th, the weight of the accumulated snow began to take a toll. The roofs of many places collapsed including Thrifty Foods, the local grocery store in James Bay, Panorama Leisure Centre, Glen Meadows Golf Club curling rink, and two airplane hangars at Victoria International Airport which destroyed several aircrafts and put many people out of a job. Boats moored in the area sank, houseboats capsized leaving their owners without a home or possessions, commercial greenhouses were crushed, destroying the crops they housed and there were many people trapped in their homes or buildings with no way out. Hospitals were buried and staff needed to stay at work, businesses were forced to stay closed, perishable food items went off, amenities were inaccessible, flights were grounded, ferries cancelled and there was no way for ground transportation to move around the city. With only five snow ploughs in service for the entire Greater Victoria Area, there was no way to quickly clear the roads to sufficiently accommodate vehicles of any kind. Because of this, emergency services were helpless to respond to calls and frightened citizens had no recourse to call for help – until a local news station stepped in. It was clear early on, that the various, fragmented levels of local government were too slow to react to the emergency and didn’t recognize the gravity of the situation until it was far too late. But the local radio station, CFAX understood quickly that they could make a tangible difference and for a time, became the de facto communication system for Victoria. They opened the phone lines and took calls from people who needed help, wanted to report an emergency or those who were looking for loved ones while they were unable to reach them. Word spread through the city to tune into CFAX and within hours, neighbours began helping one another dig others out of homes, share food and medical supplies and offer support. In one story, an elderly woman in a seniors home called the station afraid and trapped, nearby neighbours arrived with shovels, dustpans, garbage lids, and all manner of makeshift digging implements and helped uncover the doors of the building. For their spectacular community service and quick thinking, CFAX was awarded a special commendation from the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society.
The blizzard was a disaster for many and it remains that those who were grievously impacted by it hold this winter in their memory as one of loss. But for many others, during this time there was no work, no errands, no commitments or responsibilities to attend, all replaced with an incredible sense of community and cooperation. Once CFAX had established a way for Victorians to communicate, there wasn’t much left to do but bundle up and dig trails in the snow, check on neighbours, play, take pictures, and try to enjoy this incredibly rare event in history. One of the most widely noted impacts of the snow that still resonates in the minds of those who experienced the blizzard was the silence. The snow stopped the hubbub of everyday life and laid a thick blanket over the city, muffling what few, strange noises remained. Victorians still remember the barking of seals that winter on barren islands off the coast echoing through the streets. While this time is often remembered in the official records for the millions of dollars in infrastructural damages, the safety concerns and inconvenience to daily life, if you ask people about that winter, many will tell you about all the fun they had, the memories they made, the neighbours they helped and about how, for a few days in December, the world stopped.