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Jan. 19, 1977: The day it snowed in Miami

(This story was originally published January 19, 2007.)

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 in Coral Gables left him no choice but to hold his breath and issue one of Miami's most unusual forecasts:

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

"I didn't put snow first, if you notice, " he said recently. But he got it right.

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

Shivering South Floridians, young and old, looked up into the sky in total amazement as flakes 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 Miami News' headline that afternoon 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.

"I remember it like it was yesterday, " said Matt Levinson, of Weston. He was 5 at the time and living in Southwest Miami-Dade.

"I remember standing on the front lawn of my house and as the snow was falling, I tried picking it up, but it melted as soon as it hit the ground, " said Levinson, now 35, who works in public relations.

Across town that morning, Leon Strickland of North Miami was at a rock-pit work site.

"At first, I didn't know what was falling from the sky, it was so light, " said Strickland, now 65 and retired. "You had to be wearing a navy blue jacket to really see clearly it was snow. But I'm here to tell you, it snowed that day."

His 10-year-old son saw it, too. Norm Strickland was in class with 600 other pupils at North Miami Elementary when the principal's voice came over the loudspeaker about 8:40 a.m.

"I remember he said: 'Children, we're going to do this in an orderly manner. We are all going to go outside because it's snowing, ' " said Strickland, 40, a pharmaceutical salesman who now lives in Huntington, W.Va., with this wife and two daughters.

"Well, once he said snow, forget order, " said Norm Strickland. "The principal couldn't have announced there was a nuclear bomb in the building and gotten us kids out of class faster.

"Everybody went crazy, " he said. "Total glee is what I remember."

At Sabal Palm Elementary in North Miami Beach, 10-year-old Susan Schwartz was walking in a hallway when someone yelled, "Snow."

"We all ran to the sidewalk. I don't remember the teacher even trying to stop us. We were trying to catch the snow in our mouth, but it would melt, " Schwartz, 40, now an educator in the Broward County school system, said of her first snow experience.

Many South Floridians missed the brief snow event. So there were skeptics. Veteran radio disc jockey Rick Shaw tried to set them straight from his Broward radio booth.

"I was working at WAXY-106. Someone said something about seeing snow coming down, " said Shaw, who is retiring this year. "We ran back to a big window and, my gosh if it wasn't snowing in Fort Lauderdale! Being from St. Louis, I knew what snow looked like. I ran back into the studio and started playing 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."

Ferris Thompson, of South Miami, a district inspector for the Florida Department of Transportation, was driving to Fort Pierce on Interstate 95 that morning.

"I remember the snow flurries hitting my windshield; the farther north I got, the more snow I saw settling on the side of the road, " said Thompson, now 79 and retired.

Back home the next day, Thompson and his wife, Joan, hoped for a repeat. They got up before dawn and went outside in their heavy coats, waiting for snow. Jan. 20 proved to be an even colder day as temperatures dipped into the mid 20s, but no snow fell.

The couple snapped a photograph that shows Joan sitting in the family car, the windshield half covered with snow. On the dashboard is that day's newspaper.

Snow fell on an eventful week in Miami-Dade -- and the United States.

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

And on television, a highly anticipated mini-series was about to air. In Miami, Dorothy Jenkins Fields, 64, founder of the Black Archives and then a school librarian, said the snow is a blur to her. That's because the mini-series Roots, based on Alex Haley's book, was about to premiere.

"Yes, snow in Miami -- I remember it but it didn't leave much of an impression on me because I was mesmerized with Roots. The snow came and went, but Roots stuck with me."

For Biedinger, the excitement of correctly forecasting snow was quickly forgotten at the weather bureau.

"We were very concerned about the South Dade farmers who were about to get hit by another cold night, " he said.

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

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

"It was an unmeasurable amount that fell, so it's written down as 'a trace' of snow, " said Biedinger, 66, now retired and living in Titusville.

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

Biedinger said he's always considered his accurate prediction "a novelty thing."

"It was a kick to do it one time, maybe the only time in the history of Miami, " Biedinger said.

It also made Biedinger a celebrity in certain circles.

"For the rest of my career, " he said, "I was known in the weather office as the guy who predicted snow in Miami."

Could snow fall here again?

Yes, say local weather forecasters.

"It would be rare, but the way I see it, it happened once, so it can happen again. If the same weather conditions line up, we could have the same scenario, " said Robert Molleda, a meteorologist and warning coordinator with the National Weather Service in West Miami-Dade.

Miami's snow fall during the Blizzard of 1977 was caused by a combination of two artic 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.

That second front chilled the region and moved so quickly that moisture -- usually ahead of such fronts -- instead lagged behind, setting the stage for the snow.

"Basically, what happened is that the precipitation formed in the clouds did not have enough time to melt before it reached the ground, " Molleda said.

"If that had happened in the middle of the day, there probably would not have been snow, " he said.

But Miami is not the only place where a snowfall is major news. On Wednesday, the mountaintops near Malibu Beach in California were dusted in white.