March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, the proverb teaches us. But that’s on the mainland. Things are different in Florida, particularly on the peninsula, where March comes in like a lamb and goes out like a gerbil.
The same could be said of February this year. Spring, never far away here, jumped us about the third week in January, when things started to bloom promiscuously and pollen levels reached the stratosphere. Afternoon temps of about 80 follow mornings of 60 or more. The University of Tampa, a local haven for business majors and refugees from the snow-belt, is already playing baseball. Outfielders must clean their gloves during games as high fly balls come down yellow and sticky with pollen. Commercial car washes flourish. Hay fever remedies arrive in the state in trucks, rail cars, and barges. Coughing, wheezing, and sneezing are pandemic.
Frosts, even freezes, have occurred here within the memory of many, though I’m not sure how many winters ago the last one happened. We did have a morning this year that dipped briefly to 34, but that was our only visit to the thirties this “winter.” And before anyone launches into a sermon about global warming, I hasten to add that Tampa has seen stretches of warm winters for all of its history. This is nothing new. The Florida default position has always been wretchedly hot from May through September, just uncomfortably warm for a fair chunk of the rest of the year. And, prosecution stipulates so the folks at the economic development agencies won’t hyperventilate, a scattering of splendid days between Halloween and baseball’s Opening Day.
It takes a real kick-a** cold front out of Canada to get all the way down to us and cause genuine cold weather for a bit. But, infrequently, it happens. There have been mornings here in the twenties. There was even the calamitous Christmas of 1987 when the morning temperature in Tampa reached 18 degrees, a record low for the city. With people trying to heat their homes and bake turkeys and pies at the same time, there were rolling blackouts, more prayers than usual (mostly for heat), and much moaning and gnashing of teeth. I had to drag out my old Navy pea coat. It was the only three-dog night I can remember in Tampa. Usually the one dog is more than enough.
I give you this pedigree and back-story so I can share with you my memories of the day, 40 years ago last month, that it snowed on Florida’s Peninsula. That’s right, snow in Central Florida. In fact, flurries as far south as Miami Beach. As Dave Barry would say, I’m not making this up. It’s a true man-bites-dog story. I would give the following narrative under oath, though I understand how many readers will be skeptical, might even find my account fantastical. The skeptics may include Floridians, as more than half of the state’s population has been born or moved here since 1977. (Estimated population of the state in 1977 was 8.8M; last July it was 20.6M.)
Thanks to an arctic cold front on steroids, cold air began being pumped into the state by January 16 of 1977. On the evening of January 18th I watched the 11 o’clock weather report, where the local weather suit informed me the temperature would be below freezing the following morning, rare enough in itself, but said nothing of snow. (He probably would have been breathalyzed if he had.) I made a note to pull out my seldom-used overcoat for the next day. So I was surprised the following morning as I was tucking into my first cup of coffee in the apartment complex I lived in then in Winter Haven (40 miles or so east of Tampa), to hear someone outside saying, “Damn! Damn!”
When I went outside I found my neighbor, a young nurse who, to my knowledge, had never set foot outside of Florida, looking at the snow accumulating on her car’s windshield and exclaiming. She seemed totally puzzled. So I told her it was snow (which she probably had worked out by then) and that she could just wipe it off. I said there was no need for alarm, that this happens all the time on the mainland in the winter.
But it doesn’t happen hereabouts. And a good thing. The citrus and vegetable crops took a beating from the cold that came with the snow. There was at least one traffic fatality related to a snow-slick bridge near Auburndale. By mainland standards the snow didn’t amount to much. The maximum was two inches at a spot along I-4 between Tampa and Orlando. Most places recorded less than a half-inch. Tampa International Airport measured .2 inch. In his weather story for the Ledger, the county-wide daily based in Lakeland, the reporter, a lifetime Floridian, wrote that the snow accumulated “in drifts up to one-half inch.” I’m sure the snow-birds down here for the winter got a chuckle out of that. (Folks in Boston, looking at a forecast today of 14 inches of snow and closed schools, would give our “snow storm” the horse laugh.)
The rest of that week was cold in Florida, but no more snow. “The Great Snow of ’77” was almost certainly a once-in-a-lifetime event. But something to ponder wistfully this year when the late-January precipitation has been pollen rather than snow, the accumulations yellow rather than white.
The second calamitous event of that long-ago week — we didn’t know how calamitous until later — was the inauguration on January 20, Florida Snow Day + 1, of James Earl Carter Jr. as president (of the United States). For Floridians reading the signs properly, we should have interpreted January 19 as a warning of the snow-jobs to follow from Washington by way of Plains, Georgia.
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