Keith Peterson had a four-wheel drive, but he didn’t know how to use it. Much like the rest of Colorado during the Oct. 24, 1997, blizzard, he learned on the fly.
The snowstorm ranks among the worst in Colorado’s recorded history, dumping 19 inches of snow on Colorado Springs and up to 4 feet in Monument exactly 25 years ago. The storm caught many unprepared, including those at Denver’s University Hospital.
As operations manager, Peterson assisted in mobilizing drivers to pick up critical care workers for their shifts. Staff received little to no advance guidance, he said, so he set out in the thick of the storm to shuttle workers from their snowbound homes.
Those who were willing traversed several blocks of snow to meet drivers at main roads. The mission was a success, but the logistics of returning an entire shift’s worth of workers to their respective homes wouldn’t be sorted out until later.
Once at the hospital, staff was greeted with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because there wasn’t enough nutritious food to accommodate both workers and patients.
“It was a rough 36 hours,” Peterson said.
Few things look the same on the blizzard’s 25th anniversary. Institutions have since created hard-and-fast guidelines for emergency situations, leaving little need for improvisation.
That wasn’t true in 1997. Stilted responses from schools and hospitals stirred a variety of emotions among residents, whose accounts vary greatly today. Some, like Peterson, remember the danger and uncertainty that marked the historic snowfall. At least four Coloradans died, and many others were left stranded or without power.
For Denver resident Sarah Glennon, the blizzard represented something else entirely: “Best. Birthday Ever.”
Glennon was freshly 18 the night the storm hit on Oct. 24, placing her among the crop of Coloradans whose blizzard memories are permeated instead with cozy nights in or giddy excitement at the thought of school cancellations.
She was out with her future husband, brother and future sister-in-law when conditions turned “from bad to worse,” forcing the group to navigate the treacherous roads home.
“By the time we inched our way back to the ‘burbs, it was too late to send my boyfriend and my brother’s girlfriend home. The roads were impassable,” Glennon said in an email to The Gazette. “Boy, was Mom mad!”
The crew stayed up all night playing board games and laughing — and even snuck in some cuddling — before digging their cars out the next morning.
Then-sixth grade Colorado Springs resident Reva Golden was similarly caught by surprise while out attending a concert with her youth group at the Air Force Academy. The show let out to streets white with snow.
Elsewhere, she said, a group of students in her district were on a school-sanctioned camping trip. They got stuck.
In today's world, Golden said events like these would certainly be canceled.
“It was just, like, so casual, like, ‘Yeah, have an event,’” Golden said of the prevailing mentality. “Had we had any idea of it, I don’t think our parents would have let us go with the gang youth group to a concert.”
Two days before the blizzard hit, its ominous signs were swirling on weather modeling software at the former KOAA broadcast station in Pueblo.
But the storm’s severity came as a shock even to longtime KOAA forecaster Mike Daniels, who has brought the weather report to southeastern Coloradans for just under four decades.
“I remember looking at the model thinking, ‘This is going to be a monster,’” Daniels said. "But in all honesty, it even exceeded what I thought it would do. The modeling is much better now than it was back in 1997, but we had a great idea that there would be a blizzard. Blizzard warnings were out, but to see a storm of that magnitude was just mind-boggling.”
Blizzards in October are unusual, Daniels said, but blizzards of that magnitude any time of year are nearly “unheard of.”
“I’ve done this for 38 years now, and that’s still the biggest, strongest storm I’ve ever seen.”
Blizzard conditions started right before the 10 p.m. newscast that Friday and continued for about 24 hours straight, Daniels said, though heavy snow impeded normal life for the next week. He said KOAA started making preparations based on the model two days before, arranging for head anchors to work through the weekend and renting hotel rooms in Pueblo for staff commuting from Colorado Springs.
All hands were on deck in the newsroom to go “wall to wall,” Daniels said, working long hours to provide continuous coverage of the storm.
“That's my biggest memory: staying on the air and keeping people safe during that storm,” he said.
As in 1997, a “strong low-pressure system” is expected to move over the West, including the Colorado Springs area, on the anniversary, and possibly bring the “first heavy mountain snowfall” of the season in some areas, according to the National Weather Service.
Locally, however, snow is likely to keep to the central and southwestern mountains, though wintry weather and a high in the 40s is possible in the Springs.
Are extra snowy conditions in the mix this winter? Farmers' Almanac 2022-2023 says yes — get ready to “shake, shiver and shovel” soon — but Daniels, who said he doesn’t “put a whole lot of faith” in the almanacs anymore but enjoys the folklore, said acute weather events are difficult to forecast so far in advance.
More than seven days out, Daniels said, it’s “almost impossible to predict with any accuracy what's going to happen.”
Whatever might come, Peterson, now director of community benefit at UCHealth, said hospitals are ready. Operations staff now monitor storm progression and make sure shifts are in order at least 24 hours in advance. Employees will pack bags in anticipation of long stays at the hospital, which now keeps food stocks for emergency situations.
Personally, the storm taught Peterson to hit the store a lot earlier, and the forecast will impact the types of items he buys. And, he said, he now knows how to use four-wheel drive.