Flashback: 37 years ago today, it snowed in Miami

01/19/2014 3:11 PM

01/19/2014 5:26 PM

A version of this story was first published in The Miami Herald on Jan. 19, 2007, to mark the 30th anniversary of the historic snow event.

Forecaster Ray Biedinger looked at the screen of his trusty weather radar in the wee hours of Jan. 19, 1977, and knew what he had to do.

The bitter cold front barreling south across the state during his midnight shift at the old National Weather Service office, then in Coral Gables, left him no choice but to issue one of Miami's most unusual forecasts:

“Cold with rain showers and the possibility of snow, ’’ Biedinger wrote.

“If you notice, I didn't put snow first, ’’ he said.

But he got it right.

Thirty-seven years ago Sunday, snowflakes briefly dusted palm trees, windshields, and people from Miami to West Palm Beach - a freak and brief winter wonderland and the only South Florida snowfall on record in the 20th century.

Shivering South Floridians, young and old, looked to the sky in total amazement as tiny snowflakes landed on their faces.

In those early-morning hours, snowflakes fell as far south as Homestead and daytime temperatures for the region dipped into the low 30s.

But by 9:30 a.m., South Florida's big snow show was over, melted by the sun's rays.

The headline on afternoon newspaper The Miami News screamed: Snow in Miami! The next day The Miami Herald's read: The Day It Snowed in Miami.

The rare event remains a special memory for those who witnessed it. Hurricanes come and go, but snow in Miami? That's once in a lifetime.

Many South Floridians missed it - so there were skeptics. Veteran radio disc jockey Rick Shaw tried to set them straight from his radio booth. He played Bing Crosby's White Christmas.

He said listeners who didn't see or feel those fine granules were calling the station and asking why they were playing that song in the middle of January.

"Cause it's snowing outside!" Shaw told them. "It was quite a day."

Snow fell during an eventful week for South Florida - and the United States.

Newly-elected President Jimmy Carter's inauguration was scheduled for the next day; and Dade County commissioners had passed the controversial ordinance banning discrimination against gays the day before, setting the stage for a bitter battle between singer Anita Bryant and gays.

The snow and the low temperatures put Florida's citrus and vegetable industry in a death grip. Both were nearly wiped out, and about 150,000 migrant workers around the state lost their jobs - including 80,000 in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Then-Gov. Reubin Askew declared a state of emergency.

Officially, snow in Miami is not on the weather record books.

"It was an immeasurable amount that fell, so it's written down as 'a trace' of snow, ’’ said Biedinger.

Only once before, in 1899, had something resembling snow fallen over South Florida. And not this far south, only down to Fort Pierce.

Miami's snowfall during the Blizzard of 1977 was caused by a combination of two arctic cold fronts - one passed the region on Jan. 16 followed by a second, faster-moving one in the middle of the night the day it snowed.

The precipitation formed in the clouds did not have enough time to melt before it reached the ground. If it had happened in the middle of the day, there probably would not have been snow, the weather service said.

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