The Biggest Blizzard in the History of Pennsylvania That Shut Down the State

Pennsylvania has endured its fair share of snowstorms, but few stand out quite like the Blizzard of ’96. This infamous storm battered the state and much of the East Coast from January 6 to 8, 1996, leaving a trail of record-breaking snowfall, power outages, transportation chaos, and tragic loss of life. In this post, we’ll delve into what caused this paralyzing storm, its staggering impacts, and the subsequent recovery efforts.

Causes of the Blizzard of ’96

The Blizzard of ’96 stemmed from a complex convergence of weather systems. A low-pressure area originating in the Gulf of Mexico clashed with a high-pressure system from eastern Canada, while the jet stream, a swift upper-atmospheric current, acted as a conveyor belt, guiding the storm along the East Coast. As warm, moist air collided with cold, dry air, the storm intensified, unleashing heavy snowfall from Virginia to Maine. The jet stream’s path prolonged the snowfall, exacerbating the storm’s impact.

Snowfall Records and Extent

The Blizzard of ’96 etched its name in Pennsylvania’s weather history with staggering snowfall totals. Across the state, records were broken or tied for snow accumulation. Philadelphia saw 30.7 inches, dwarfing the previous record of 21.3 inches set in 1983. Reading recorded 30 inches, Allentown 25.9 inches, and Harrisburg 20 inches. Even Pittsburgh, with 9.5 inches, broke its previous record by a fraction. The snow blanketed the entire state with at least 6 inches, with some areas witnessing snow drifts towering up to 10 feet.

Impacts of the Blizzard

The Blizzard of ’96 wreaked havoc across Pennsylvania. Over half a million customers were plunged into darkness as power lines succumbed to the weight of snow-laden branches. Transportation ground to a halt as roads, bridges, and airports became impassable. Schools, businesses, and government offices shuttered for days. The storm posed grave health risks, with cases of hypothermia, frostbite, heart attacks, and snow-related injuries soaring. Flooding compounded the misery as melting snow swelled rivers and streams. Tragically, Pennsylvania bore the highest death toll from the storm, with at least 80 lives lost.

Recovery Efforts

In the aftermath, Pennsylvania rallied its resources to recover from the Blizzard of ’96. Governor Tom Ridge declared a state of emergency, deploying the National Guard and soliciting federal aid from President Bill Clinton. Cooperation between state and local agencies was crucial in clearing roads, restoring power, and providing shelter. Communities came together, offering assistance, volunteering, and donating resources. Though recovery was a prolonged endeavor, Pennsylvania eventually emerged from the grip of the storm.


The Blizzard of ’96 stands as a harrowing chapter in Pennsylvania’s history, a stark reminder of nature’s ferocity. Yet, amidst the devastation, it showcased the resilience and unity of Pennsylvanians. While the storm paralyzed the state, it also brought forth a spirit of solidarity, embodying the strength of Pennsylvania in the face of adversity.

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