Frozen in our memories: Readers recall coldest December on record — in 1983 -
Published Friday, December 27, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 1:12 pm
Frozen in our memories: Readers recall coldest December on record — in 1983
By the Numbers: December 1983
0 degrees: The highest temperature for seven consecutive days in late December in North Platte, Valentine, Hastings, Grand Island, Kearney, Norfolk, Lincoln and Omaha.

12.8 degrees below zero: Average temperature, Dec. 18-Dec. 24, 1983, in North Platte.

11.9 degrees below zero: Average temperature, Dec. 18-24, 1983, in Omaha.

11 degrees below zero: Daytime high on Christmas Eve in Omaha, matching the lowest-ever daytime high for the month set Dec. 23, 1872.

24 degrees below zero: Overnight low, Dec. 22, 1983, Omaha, second-coldest December night on record; coldest was 25 degrees below zero on Dec. 22, 1989.

6 degrees: Average temperature for all of December in Sioux City, Iowa, which was 17.3 degrees below normal.

2 degrees: Christmas Day high in Omaha, which brought an end to the subzero record.

14: Number of nights during the second half of December that temperatures dropped below zero in Omaha.

1: Number of days above freezing in December 1983 in Lincoln and Omaha.

Source: National Weather Service; University of Nebraska-Lincoln climatologist Ken Dewey

Thirty years ago, the coldest December on record brought unrelenting misery across much of the nation, including Nebraska and Iowa.

An unusual weather pattern shoved Arctic air as far south as Texas, allowing record-breaking cold to cover the continent from the Rockies east to the Atlantic Ocean.

The worst of the cold occurred the week of Christmas.

During the seven days ending on Christmas Eve, the temperature in Omaha didn't rise above 0 degrees and the city had its coldest week on record, said Barbara Mayes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Omaha lows that week ranged from 15 degrees below zero to 24 below zero.

At least six people in Nebraska and Iowa died in weather-related accidents. One woman died of exposure in Omaha.

On Christmas Eve, the mercury was unable to top 11 degrees below zero, Omaha's coldest December day on record.

“The weather was horrible,” Carlee Seeba recalls.

During her father-in-law's funeral 30 years ago this week, the pipes froze at the family's home and relatives returned to water and ice everywhere, she said. “It was brutal.”

That's how South Omahan Kathy Raabe, then a single mother of three, remembers it.

Like many others, she lugged her car battery indoors at night so that it wouldn't freeze up and she could get to work the next day. She kept her kids bundled up, even indoors.

“You did what you had to do to get by,” she said.

Once people got to work, they didn't take their cars for granted either.

Kathy Haffke recalled going outside to start her car several times a day so that she could get home.

“Also, the power steering was very stiff and so were the brakes,” she said. “Horrible cold!”

In Denison, Iowa, Chris Kuehnhold's family hung black plastic tarp around their Plymouth station wagon while they repaired its broken timing chain. “(We) put 10 heat lamps inside the makeshift garage and still had to wear face masks to breathe and keep from freezing our lungs,” he said.

With local homeless shelters full, Omaha officials tacitly disregarded code violations and allowed the St. Vincent de Paul Center to open a then-unfinished shelter on 17th Street. Aid agencies brought in cots, blankets, porta-potties, wood stoves and kerosene and space heaters.

The Metropolitan Utilities District hired extra workers to help with frozen water meters, broken gas and water lines and the several hundred furnaces that wouldn't work.

A one-day respite from the cold, on Dec. 27, had Omaha's Public Works Department scrambling to break loose the snow frozen in streets, haul away ice chunks and spread gravel to improve traction.

Eppley Airfield had what an official described as a “nightmarish” week as flights, passengers and baggage stacked up. At one point, only two of the airport's tankers were able to refuel jets.

The month also turned deadly.

A woman found outside near 16th and Cass Streets a few days after Christmas died of exposure.

Three children were killed when a semitrailer truck plowed into disabled vehicles in a snowy chain-reaction accident near Greeley, Neb. A teenager died when he lost control of his car on a windy, snowy road near Geneva, Neb. And in Iowa, two women were killed in a crash on Interstate 35.

Livestock losses doubled at the end of December. Even so, the losses were not nearly as severe as this year's October blizzard in northwest Nebraska.

Mayes said the cold was remarkable for many reasons. The warming planet has made record cold half as common as it used to be, relative to record warmth.

“It's just harder to get that cold,” she said.

Many of the records that were broken by the 1983 Arctic outbreak had been in place since the late 1800s to early 1900s, Mayes said. Outside of a cold spell in 1989, most of the 1983 records remain in place.

Ken Dewey, a climatologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said a big problem that accompanied the 1983 cold was the slushy snow that fell Thanksgiving weekend.

Immediately after that storm, temperatures dropped and generally didn't climb above freezing until January. Any road, sidewalk or driveway that didn't get cleared over the Thanksgiving holiday remained a frozen mess.

Travel on many Lincoln residential streets was restricted to a set of deep frozen ruts, he said.

Brenda Helget drove her Pontiac Catalina along Lincoln's ruts before dawn every day, delivering The World-Herald.

“I remember being terrified my oil pan would get ripped to shreds,” she said. “Back in those days, there were no cellphones. If I got stuck, there was nobody to call.”

The snow from Thanksgiving remained on the ground until a February thaw, Dewey said.

Successive snowfalls added to the problems.

By Christmas Day that year, Omaha had 13 inches of snow on the ground, Grand Island 15 inches and Hastings 19 inches.

“It didn't look like Nebraska,” Dewey said. “The snow just got deeper and deeper.”

This report includes material from the World-Herald archives.

Current conditions and forecast

Contact the writer: Nancy Gaarder    |   402-444-1102    |  

Nancy writes about weather, including a blog, Nancy's Almanac. She enjoys explaining the science behind weather and making weather stories relevant in daily life.

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