Sixty years ago this weekend, residents struggled under the weight of one of the most destructive storms to hit this region.
"Not within memory of present generations has Altoona been struck with such a disastrous storm," stated the Nov. 27, 1950, edition of the Altoona Mirror.
Or since, those who lived through it say.
"It was just like a ghost town. Nothing was moving," said David Seidel, 72, of Altoona, who was 12 years old at the time.
Historically, the Great Appalachian Storm of Nov. 24-27, 1950, is ranked as a Category 5, or Extreme, storm on the Northeast Snowstorm Impact Scale. The scale focuses on area and population affected by a heavy snowfall.
"It was one of the most unusual storms of the 20th century," said National Weather Service meteorologist Paul Kocin, one of the creators of the snowstorm scale.
The Nov. 22, 1950, edition of the Mirror said that forecasters called for "a rather typical November assortment of weather."
It was anything but typical.
Freezing rain fell nonstop for 12 hours. Altoona was isolated for two days. It took weeks to restore electricity to residents and businesses. Tyrone didn't get the ice, but parts of the borough were under water after the Little Juniata River crested about 5 feet above flood stage.
While Altoona had a major ice storm, western Pennsylvania was buried under snow and experienced bitter cold temperatures, and eastern Pennsylvania had heavy rain and temperatures in the 50s, Kocin said.
It produced hurricane-force winds with 120 to 140 mph gusts in interior New York and New Jersey.
Timber in a 15-mile radius of Altoona also took a beating from the ice. It was estimated that it would take 15 to 20 years for the forests to regenerate from the damage.
The storm took a very crazy path, developing in North Carolina and ending up in Ohio, said Kocin, a former winter weather expert with The Weather Channel.
"It went north, and then west, and circled around itself in Ohio," he said.
The storm caused $20 million damage locally or $182.3 million in 2010 dollars, based on the Consumer Price Index. More than 383 people died across the 22 states affected by the storm.
It would be called by various names including the Great Appalachian Storm, the Great Thanksgiving Storm and the Storm of the Century, a moniker it would shake off 43 years later when the Blizzard of 1993 rolled through the eastern United States. It also became the focus of major changes in the way forecasters predicted the weather.
'It was a disaster'
Altoona was at a standstill.
John Conlon, then 20, went with his mother to the old Strand Theatre, the night before the storm unloaded on the region. They stood at 16th Street waiting for the streetcar as it started to snow.
"It was a slushy snow," Conlon, 80, remembered. "We got on the streetcar and went to our stop at Second Avenue and 12th Street. We got out and went home.
"And the next day, it was a disaster. The wires were down. The trees were bent. It was bad."
One of those wires snapped off Seidel's home and jumped around on the ground.
Seidel watched from inside his house.
"It was an exciting time from the perspective of a child, but you couldn't get around," he said.
Tom Lyman of Altoona, now 89, covered the event as a photographer for the Altoona Tribune, a competitor to the Mirror. He also took photos as a freelancer for Bell Telephone Co.
"There's never been anything like that in this area," he said.
Lyman lived with his wife and infant daughter in a Broad Avenue apartment building across from the Jaffa Mosque, now the Jaffa Shrine Center.
"Cars were sitting in the middle of the street. People would park them and leave them there," he said.
Streetcars were also left sitting on the avenue, the main feeder line for the Altoona & Logan Valley Electric Railway Co. Bus service also was limited in Altoona.
Lyman was able to get around with the help of a telephone company supervisor who drove him to various locations where line work was under way, including Riggles Gap and Lakemont.
Seidel wasn't allowed out of his Washington Avenue home under parents' orders. There were too many trees and wires snapping for their liking and their child's safety.
Once he was allowed outside, Seidel walked downtown in search of candles. Stores were using candles and kerosene lamps to light their businesses. Mechanical cash registers were still able to ring up the sales.
If the rain, snow and ice wasn't bad enough, a shot of bitter Arctic air dropped temperatures to well below zero on Nov. 26, 1950, the coldest night of the year.
The mercury tumbled to 16 below in Ashville and Nanty Glo, according to the Pennsylvania Railroad Test Department. Those temperatures weren't the lowest: A Penelec thermometer recorded 20 below zero at Piney Dam, Clearfield County.
It was 2 below in Altoona, 3 below at the Altoona-Blair County Airport, 5 below in Bellwood and 6 below in Homer's Gap.
Keeping homes heated wasn't an issue, though, as furnaces were coal-fired. Conlon said residents made sure they never let their coal bins drop below a two-week supply - a lesson learned from a nationwide coal strike a year earlier.
It took a week for Altoona industries to get back to normal, the Altoona Chamber of Commerce said. It also took a week to get the city's fire alarm circuits and police call stations functioning.
Gov. James H. Duff, fresh off his U.S. Senate victory, was confronted with the statewide emergency. He ordered the closing of banks in Blair and 16 other western Pennsylvania counties for two days after bankers said their employees were unable to report to work.
Duff also activated the Pennsylvania National Guard, which patrolled Tyrone streets for a time after the flooding there.
A power outage forced the Altoona Mirror to not print on Nov. 25, 1950, the first time in the newspaper's history.
City merchants extended hours in the weeks leading up to Christmas to make up for lost business.
Record weekend crowds were reported at stores and gas stations with high demand for gas, kerosene, bread and milk.
The storm forced area milk producers to improvise. The former Abbott Dairies Inc. plant in Curryville, Bedford County, although without power, continued to accept milk, which was transferred by hand into tanks and then sent to Philadelphia.
The PRR's Altoona Works continued operations despite the power outages; about 65 percent of the workers were able to report to their jobs on Nov. 27.
Passenger and high priority freight trains still moved through the PRR's Middle Division, but they were hours late because the heavy ice continue to snap overhead power lines and knock out track signals.
led to changes
Prior to the 1950 storm, weather forecasting was a subjective art - based on surface observations.
"There was no way you can see things like that," Kocin said, regarding the nature of the information forecasters used then.
But the storm had a silver lining. It was used as a model of how computer modeling could be used to better predict the weather. U.S. Weather Bureau meteorologist Norm Phillips was the first to show it was possible to predict the weather using a numerical model.
"It became the foundation for all of our forecasting," Kocin said.
Phillips and other forecasters had one model to use. Today, forecasters like Kocin have access to up to 24 models, with hundreds of different kinds of solutions.
Because of Phillips' work, the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit was created in July 1954 with the weather bureau - now the National Weather Service - and the U.S. Army and Navy.
The weather unit evolved into the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, which produce the U.S. models.
As computers became more powerful, the weather forecasting models also improved.
"When I was in school 30-35 years ago, one- to three-day forecasts were an adventure," Kocin said. "Twenty years ago, our two- to three-day forecasts were generally reliable. Now, the four- to five-day forecasts are generally reliable. The details may be off, but we can go into work four days later and say that basically this is what we were looking at four days ago."
The National Weather Service produces the two computer models Accuweather.com uses the most, Feerick said. The computers ingest all the upper air data and surface observations and produce the models in several hours.
Accuweather.com also uses its own forecast model, which is based on much of the same information provided by the weather service, Accuweather.com meteorologist John Feerick said..
Models were used to predict this year's back-to-back storms in February that dumped between 18.5 and 20.5 inches of snow in the Altoona area. Forecasters knew at least three days in advance that the major storms were going to hit the area. It was just a matter of determining how much snowfall would come, based on the storms' track.
"Basically, as in the storms in February, we are able to have much more notice of what may happen," Feerick said.
Are we ready
for the next one?
"We are never prepared for the extreme events that may occur once or twice in our lifetime," Bedford County Emergency Management Director Dave Cubbison said.
One of those events was the January 1996 flood that occurred when about 3 feet of snow melted under a combination of unseasonably warm temperatures and heavy rain. The subsequent flooding caused $8 million damage in Bedford County.
"We can build walls around every house and put houses on 10-, 12-, 14-foot-high stilts - but how high is enough? We try to be realistic, assess reasonable risks and make reasonable preparations without impeding on our everyday existence," Cubbison said.
The last storm to cause havoc even close to that of the 1950 storm occurred with a wet snowfall of 16 inches in Altoona on April 28-29, 1928.
Practically every electric and telephone line in central Pennsylvania fell during the storm, the Mirror reported. It took months to finish repairs.
"First and foremost, the technology we have available is far superior: the weather forecasts, the weather tracking, the radar tracking," said Scott Surgeoner, a spokesman for FirstEnergy, the parent company of Penelec.
"We have an idea several days - up to a week in advance - of what could have a major impact on our service territory."
Penelec is able to do more work with less equipment, thanks to highly mechanized trucks and hydraulic tools that weren't available in 1950. Power lines and utility poles are stronger than they were 60 years ago.
Because First Energy has seven operating companies between Toledo, Ohio, and the Jersey shore, it can move workers from one area to another for restoration.
There is also a formal mid-Atlantic aid agreement where Penelec can go to a number of non-FirstEnergy utilities and ask for workers to assist them, Surgeoner said.
"And I think we as a population - yourself, your friends, your family - are much better prepared," he said. "We have flashlights, kerosene heaters, portable radios: things that are much more available than 60 years ago."
Mirror Staff Writer Mark Leberfinger is at 946-7450.