Monday, March 13, 2023

Snowstorms to sizzlers

Photo by Al Podgorski

     The temperature plunged to well below zero. As happens in Chicago, where constantly changing weather is a driving force in city life.
     Sun-Times photographer Al Podgorski went to his favorite spot on the lakefront to capture the steaming skyline. As he snapped the frosty cityscape, a rogue wave from the lake leapt the breakwall and soaked him, head to toe.
     “Super cold,” he remembered. “Totally soaked. My pockets were filled with water” — and expensive camera lenses.
     By the time Podgorski hurried into a nearby building, “everything was frozen,” including his hair. He ran into a bathroom, hit the hand dryer and held his Nikon lenses, one by one, under the hot air to dry them. His hair would have to wait. The equipment had to be saved.
     “We didn’t want the wrath of our bosses,” Podgorski said. 
     In the 75 years since the Sun-Times was founded, an anniversary being commemorated all this year, no story has been as consistent as the mercurial Chicago weather. From polar deep freezes to scorching summer noons — plus howling blizzards, flash floods, killer tornados and the rare gorgeous spring day, not to forget March’s entrance like a lion and exit like a lamb — no other topic has been as personal or carried as much practical importance to readers as the weather.
     And no story was as consistently challenging to the newspaper’s reporters, editors and especially photographers, as the struggle to capture what it’s like outside, to find the wonder in ordinary meteorological events and to bring the rare and extraordinary to the readers’ doorstep.
     “I was the ‘weather guy,’” Podgorski said. “Weather was my thing. I was always shooting weather. I would come back with weather pictures when nobody could find them.”
     A “weather picture” is that elusive blend of whimsy and observation, conveying with power and immediacy: It’s cold. It’s windy. Or hot. Children always help here — cooling off in city hydrants, leaping into piles of autumnal leaves, flying kites, bundled up on sleds, making angels and snowmen.
     “There were times when you had to find a weather picture,” said Rich Hein, who’s been on the Sun-Times photo staff for 38 years.

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  1. Just incredible, thank you!

  2. A lot of work. Just for our delectation. Thanks, Neil

  3. Hey this was great, thanks. For a few years when I was the night or weekend editorial assistant, one of my jobs was to write the ear. I was given some latitude in using the best word to describe the weather.

    1. so that was you! whoever you are. wish I knew. entertaining and initiated a lot of chatter in my shop and on the radio station I listened to

  4. This one’s a jewel, Mister S. And a keeper.

    For half my life, I pissed and moaned about Chicago’s weather extremes. In the summer, it’s a dusty baker. In the winter, yeshiva. But I also became fascinated with the whys and hows and how muches of Chicago weather from childhood. I might have even become a meteorologist, but I couldn’t handle the necessary higher math, so I aspired to wordsmithing instead.

    It might have even started before birth, when my mother slept in Garfield Park for three weeks during Chicago’s hottest August ever (1947). It was almost a hundred degrees on the day I was born. Our suburban basement became an indoor swimming pool for the first time during that historic 1954 flood, but not the last time. There were a few more. One of my most vivid childhood memories is seeing my plastic soldiers (“Army guys”) floating in two feet of water. I even drew a flood gauge on the painted basement wall, like the ones you see on bridges and alongside riverbanks. My father was not amused. He had to paint over it when the house was put up for sale.

    A good deal of the Sun-Times weather history was my weather history as well. When the mercury plunged from the low 60s to the low teens within a matter of hours (January, 1965), the Sun-Times headline was just one word: “B-R-R-R!” And it was festooned with icicles.(What great graphics!) That same year, I watched a tornado cross my high school football field and bend a flagpole. I endured the blizzards of ’67 and ’79...and the hellish summer of '88. Made the big mistake of drinking beer at Wrigley on that July 14 of 1995 (the heat index of 125 was like having a hot towel over your face). My wife collapsed and was carried under the stands, where rows of fans were already laid out. It looked like Atlanta in “Gone With the Wind.” Not one of her happier birthdays, but maybe the most memorable.

    On the other hoof, my brakes froze in '85, while driving to the store on Chicago’s coldest day ever (27 below)…the day I had to hit a snowbank to stop. A neighbor kid down the street was electrocuted when I was ten--he touched a TV in a flooded basement. I was soaked on Opening Night for the Cubs in '88, and pushed into a puddle by drunken frat boys.

    . And all the memorable Chicago weather events that I experienced, along with so many more, were captured and documented by the Daily News and the Sun-Times. As were the countless uneventful ordinary weather days that broke no records. I still have the clips and the photos from some of Chicago's biggest weather stories. Thanks muchly, Mr S, for a great read.

    1. Complaining about the weather is a waste of time. The year before your -27 adventure, Grizz, I didn't let a similar cold snap keep me from a hot date. I worked for a mover and -17 didn't stop us, but the Schlitz exec we moved figured we wouldn't have enjoyed a cold beer. He was wrong. I walked home a mile and a half through the '67 storm and was turned away by my Parish nuns when we sought shelter along the way. The cold hasn't driven me from Chicago, though I do winter in Ft Myers now. The Florida heat and humidity in Summer is unrelenting and worse than anything faced in Chicago and I do not understand why people move here permanently. Driving through the area hit hardest by Ian was traumatic for me. I have been coming to this once sleepy beach community since my parents relocated in '74 and seeing it devastated was shocking. No pictures can tell the story that I saw 10 weeks after the hurricane. You can add layers in the cold, find a cool place or pool in the heat, but you better run fast and first if a hurricane is coming.

  5. Great piece! I am new to you (I did hear a WGN interview when your book came out tho) but thx for this and your work. Was glad to have a reference to the great bike-city photo too. It's swell

  6. Front page + 3 more pages! Another Steinberg tour de force.

    I particularly like how you managed to get Mr. Podgorski's bike / puddle photo in the paper after a quarter-century, not to mention its prominent placement here. Another day where, even if one has read the paper paper, it's well worth clicking on the link, as there are even more photos and they really pop.

    1954: "For the first time since the river was reversed in 1900, the Chicago River once again flowed into Lake Michigan after the Chicago Sanitary District’s chief hydraulic engineer opened the lake lock that had never been opened, un-reversing the river’s course."

    As Mr. Vallas brags about how "We are poised for climate change," it might be worthwhile keeping in mind that an even worse scenario than the above could become quite problematic in the future. This remarkable New York Times article and its description of what happened at the lock in May 2020 seems to indicate cause for some genuine concern.

    1. What's the prognosis...a rising lake level blocks runoff after a big storm, leading to a catastrophic flood? The NYT paywall won't let me find out.

    2. Sorry about that, Grizz. I'm not a subscriber, so there's nothing I can do about it. I was able to read the article by googling it, but I guess that's a one-time deal. You might give it a try, because it's a fine article with some wonderful graphics. I'll see if I can post the main part I was referring to.

      "For more than a century — through generations of blasting, tunneling, jacking and remaking of a swamp to match a city’s ambitions — the lake was ready to serve as a last-resort dump for sewage.

      Then came May 17, 2020."

      (A second storm 3 days after the record 24-hour deluge for the date.)

      "Lake Michigan’s level at that moment was at a record high for May — well above the river. So opening the lock wasn’t an option, because that would have sent lake water pouring into the river, flooding the city.

      At 6:16 p.m. the river hit +3.8 feet. Then, less than 10 minutes later, it hit +4 feet, a number 'we thought we’d never see,' said James Duncker, a hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey."


      "Then, at 6:54 p.m. the river surged to +4.6 feet, putting it about five inches above the level of the lake. Finally, Mr. Valley (the lockmaster) had options again.

      He gave the order, and his crew opened the immense steel lock gates. A whoosh of water carrying all manner of waste — trees, chunks of dock, litter, toilet flushes — blasted into Lake Michigan.

      In mere minutes, the suddenly reversed river, roaring like a freight train, dropped below lake level. This was a new problem; If the gates stayed open, lake water would slosh back into the river, further flooding the city.

      There was nothing in the playbook for this scenario. Mr. Valley and the lock operators had to wing it, pinching the gates closed to let the river again rise above the lake, then swinging them open again to let the swollen river drain into the lake.

      Again and again, the crew repeated these steps. They were, almost literally, bailing out a flooding downtown Chicago by flapping the steel gates.

      'We just did it on the fly,' Mr. Valley said.

      Still, it was not enough. The river kept climbing, eventually peaking at +5.12 feet a little after 7 p.m.

      The resulting floodwaters not only submerged the bustling Lower Wacker Drive, one of the city’s main arteries, but also knocked out the electrical power at the nearby Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) all the way up to the aircraft warning lights atop its tusk-like antennas. A city hotline fielded more than 1,500 distress calls from residents whose basements were flooded."


      "...the extreme high water in the lake during the May 2020 flood was partly due to a wind-driven surge that pushed up water levels along Chicago’s shoreline by almost one foot.

      That’s not unusual; even two-foot storm surges aren’t uncommon. But it perfectly captures the city’s delicate balance between dryness and disaster.

      If a two-foot storm surge were to strike when the lake level was just a couple of feet higher, the lock itself would in effect be useless. Lake water would overtop its gates and race into the city, and beyond. 'It would be a problem,' Mr. Schmidt said as waves crashed nearby. 'It would be a big problem.'

      Added Mr. Valley: 'All the way down to the Mississippi.'"

  7. A perfect piece for a long car ride; my son is driving us back from a road trip while I get to enjoy this — happy 75th to the Sun-Times!

  8. Great 3-page spread, congrats, wonderful collection of stories. Glad I checked EGD so I could send it to friends. I had never that picture from last fall on the U of C quad. Just stunning! A Chicago version of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.


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