Ice Storm ’96 hit the Inland Northwest 25 years ago today

SPOKANE, Wash. — Heavy, wet snow was falling as midnight struck on November 19, 1996, in Spokane.

Records from the National Weather Service showed that by 10 a.m., the snow had turned to rain. Unlike many times before and since that day,  this rain froze instantly on anything it touched. The incoming storm approached from the southwest at just the right angle to keep winds out of the northeast and temperatures below freezing throughout the day. High above, however, a mile high-shaft of warm tropical air dumped this freezing rain across the Inland Northwest.

ground setup for ice storm 96freezing rain explainer

Everything was encrusted with close to an inch of ice by the time the day was over. This added hundreds, even thousands of pounds of weight to trees and power line infrastructure. It was not a weight that was bearable. Hundreds of thousands lost power as lines collapsed and trees and poles snapped under the strain. One Spokane man in an interview with KXLY described it as “cannons going off up in the hills.”

MORE: KXLY reporting on the storm as it happened in 1996

Power would not be fully restored until December. One lineman,  Jimmie Dean of Washington Water Power (now Avista), lost his life in the aftermath. He was looking for the source of a natural gas leak when he was electrocuted by a downed power line.

In the days and weeks following the storm, the fight to stay warm began. KXLY at the time would report on many house fires started by improvised heating. Two people died using a charcoal grill in their trailer for heat. Several more were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. Many others rode out the storm in Red Cross shelters when the cold became unbearable.

chainsaw cuts through icy tree branch after 1996 storm

Source: KXLY archives

A chainsaw cuts through a limb encased in ice after the November 19, 1996 ice storm.

The storm remains one of the worst disasters in the history of the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene region. It cost an estimated $22 million ($35 million in 2021 dollars). Considering the population and infrastructure growth of the Inland Northwest in the last 25 years, a similar storm today would be even costlier. Ice storms remain a risk, but a storm as severe as Ice Storm ’96 was exceptional and rare because of the amount of moisture it brought and the amount of time the urban corridor saw freezing rain. The 1.24 inches of liquid moisture on that day remains the November 19th record. It’s also the fourth wettest November day in 140 years of records in Spokane.

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