Nov 11, 1940
A surprise blizzard drops up to 27 inches of snow on the state, resulting in the deaths of 49 civilians and 59 sailors. Many of the dead are duck hunters who were caught unprepared after the day’s mild weather changed suddenly.*
In every region of the United States, if you stay there long enough, you come to know a bit of its character. As one raised in the Midwest, the author can attest to the regional character of its people. More specifically, Minnesotans develop a kind of resilience or resignation that comes from adjusting one’s life to the whims of our environment.
We are subject to the “Continental Effect” which means that we experience some of the largest shifts in temperature of any inhabitable climate on earth. We are at the mercy of prevailing winds, fronts, or jet streams bringing in a completely different type of weather. We do not have oceans to moderate the chill from the Canadian Rockies or the North Pole. To be Minnesotan is to accept that, some days, we just don’t have a choice.**
Please take a peek at this excerpt on this infamous blizzard from the National Weather Service:
Hunters taking advantage of the holiday and extremely mild weather were rewarded with an overabundance of waterfowl. Many would later comment that they had never seen so many birds, but the birds knew something most of the hunters didn’t. They were getting out of the way of an approaching storm.
Across the Midwest hundreds of duck hunters, not dressed for the cold, were overtaken by the storm. Winds came suddenly then masses of ducks arrived flying low to the ground (Washburn, 2008). Hunters, awed by the site of unending flocks of birds, failed to recognize the impending weather signs that a change was in process. Rain started and temperatures fell rapidly. By the time the rain, sleet, then heavy snow reduced the visibility to zero, hunters lost their opportunities to return safely to shore. Hundreds of duck hunters lost boats, gear and guns as 15 foot swells and 70 -80 mph winds swept down channels and marshy backwaters. Some hunters drowned, others froze to death when the near 60 degree temperatures plummeted, first to freezing, then into the single digits (Knarr, 1941; Swails, 2005; Washburn, 2008).
During the next few days search parties retrieved frozen hunters from islands and the icy waters. Some of those lucky enough be stranded on islands survived the storm, but lost hands or feet due to severe frost bite.
Transportation and Infrastructure
Across the upper Midwest drifts up to 20 feet high buried cars and rescuers had to force long probes into the rock hard drifts in their search for missing people. Passenger trains were stranded, and roads and highways remained closed for days. Newspaper deliveries were halted; telephone and power lines were damaged as were homes, barns, and outbuildings in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan.
Historians note storms were responsible for many shipwrecks, and November storms were known to strike with incredible fury (Oosting, 2008). In spite of this there was a tremendous incentive for ships to go out during the most dangerous season for their cargoes of coal, grain, and crops were in great demand (Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, 2009). Food supplies were needed to get through the winter, and coal was essential for heating. Mariners, aware of the dangers on the Great Lakes, paid close attention to the weather. But during the Armistice Day storm many of the crews were unaware that the winds would shift until their ships were struck broadside by the full force of the wind. During the storm three large ships sank near Pentwater, Michigan and 58 lives were lost. Survivors on ships that ran aground waited for days on their damaged vessels until winds subsided and rescue boats could be launched from shore. Communities expecting the cargos for their winter supplies were significantly impacted by the loss of food and fuel (Oosting, 2008).
The Destruction of an Industry
Before the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 the state of Iowa was a leading fruit growing region, second only to Michigan in apple production. As the storm’s center passed near Winterset Iowa, a ferocious ice storm delivered a devastating blow to the apple industry. Icy winds killed hundreds of apple trees, and planting a new orchard was expensive. In 1940 the threat of war was growing and the nation was preparing for hard times. If trees were planted it would be years before they would be capable of producing fruit. The economic impacts to apple growers were so significant that the landscape across Iowa was permanently changed when orchards were transformed into fields of faster growing crops like corn and soybeans (Friese, 2008).” ***
Vi skall be? Lord, we are Your people, the sheep of Your pasture. We give You thanks that You are the capable creator of the weather, and King of the Universe! We acknowledge that we cannot control the climate, but must learn to respect it and live with it.
We remember the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 to You, dear Father! We see the suffering and even deaths and ask, “Why?” It is so human of us. In reality, we should ask, “Dad, why are we so detached from nature that we anticipate and even expect to get our way?”
We have detached from our senses and instincts that You have given humanity for survival. We listen to the weather report, check weather on our phones or devices, but do not look out the window, smell the air, or step outside. We go straight from our homes, to the car, to the parking ramp, to our work; inside, inside, inside!
We mourn, in retrospect, the deaths of these hunters. Even those who are attuned to their instincts and the outdoors can fail. We humbly remember their tragic endings, and our judgments towards Your wisdom in allowing them. Have mercy!
We recall the terror of these Great Lakes sailors who, duty-bound, showed up and did their job. They had no reason to anticipate it was their last day, but it was. We judged You, and can’t make sense of it. We have taken the deaths of these sailors very personally, but is that Your intent? Will Your forgive our judgments of Your intentions?
We think of the indirect suffering caused by this storm to all; the wise and the foolish. We have judged the sufferings of the unteachable to be just, but tragic when it happens to the hard-working and honorable. We cannot understand if there is any meaning in suffering when it’s detached from cause and effect. We reckon falsely, again, that You don’t care that there is no coal to warm us, no food in the store, and no medicine to heal us. We have judged You as an arbiter of justice, that You play with our lives; will You show mercy on these?
We approach You today in the spirit of Armistice Day: to make peace, to ask for a cease-fire, to offer a truce. Will You teach us the meaning of weather? Will You show us the impact far beyond the grasp of our detuned senses and instant gratification mindset?
We don’t see Your Heart of Mercy in extreme climate events, maybe, because we are not paying attention or being present to You long enough. What if, for example, You ordained this storm to shift Iowa from apples to corn production? What if You knew that this big freeze plus Norman Borlaug’s research decades later would feed continents of people? What if this temporary and local tragedy meant alleviating suffering across the globe?
We do not imagine how You inspire imagination within us. We let our kids try doing things their way and failing because failure is a good teacher. If we shield them from every preconceived obstacle, how do their brains develop or their psyches’ know that they can overcome challenges in life? Yet we don’t judge ourselves for being cruel for allowing them space to become problem solvers.
What if this storm on the Great Lakes of November 11, 1940 is just part of Your universal clock? Not many of us think of our climate as being subject to the gravity of the cosmos. What if our shipwreck means the survival of another earth somewhere in Your galaxy?
Or taking things inwardly, what if You tolerate a certain amount of suffering so that we see how desperately we need You, and each other to survive? Pain, it seems, is not a first cause, but a signal that we must change to better survive. May we offer this truce to our neighbors when bad weather threatens us internally or externally: “I need you. You need me. We’re all a part His body. Stand with me, agree with me. We’re all a part of G-d’s body. It is his will, that every need be supplied. You are important to me, I need you to survive. I pray for you, you pray for me. I love you, I need you to survive. I won’t harm you with words from my mouth. I love you, I need you to survive.” **** Hezekiah Walker
* P.T.H. cites timeline formerly at this URL: mnhs.org/about/dipity_timeline.htm
The Minnesota Historical Society Web site, http://www.mnhs.org, is fantastic! Check it out! Images are from https://images.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl; again, an amazing resource!
**** Walker, Hezekiah “I Need You to Survive”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnaHTOUigJM