Jan. 19, 1977. The day when temperatures plunged into the 30s on the Suncoast and snowflakes dusted Tampa Bay. The storm didn’t last that long, but it was enough to cement the day into our area’s history.
Some native Floridians delighted in seeing their first snowfall. Families built snowmen together. College students ran around nude and skipped class.
But not everyone was pleased to wake up to the falling flurries. Farmers’ crops were destroyed. Icy gusts of wind knocked over power lines and ripped trees out of the ground. The governor at the time, Reubin Askew, called a state of emergency.
Let’s take a trip back in time to that frigid day.
A day for the history books
It wasn’t the first time snow had been seen Tampa, historian Tony Pizzo told the Tampa Tribune in 1977. The first reported snowfall happened in 1835, back when Tampa mostly consisted of the military population at Fort Brooke.
Snow returned in 1895 and was bad enough to close cigar factories, where about 6,000 of the city’s 12,000-15,000 people worked. There were traces of snow in 1886 and 1894, and as well as during the severe freeze of 1962. But it was nothing like the flurries that would come back in 1977. The snow was done falling by mid-morning, according to the archives. But the weather still made headlines.
The Tampa Times described the Tampa Parks Department crew trimming snow-covered palm trees and construction workers walking out during the work day. The Tampa Tribune wrote about Bill Rose, a paper boy who saw the customers on his route recoil in shock as they awakened to the weather outside.
The then-St. Petersburg Times published a story about Marc Zamore, a Tampa man who jokingly placed an ad for a snow removal company in the phonebook. Zamore, the owner of an office supply company, received so many calls from people who wanted “snow removal equipment” that his actual customers struggled to get through to place their orders.
On the front page of The Tampa Times, former northerners reminisced about the icy towns they had left behind when they moved to Florida.
Tampa police officer S.L. Dunlap, who fled New York to escape the snow, quipped, “I guess I’ll have to go to the Equator!”
“I don’t believe it,” said an unnamed man, who drove 1,700 miles to North Carolina a week before to show his wife and kids snow.
Icy roads caused hazards for unprepared drivers
Snowy conditions caused turmoil for drivers across the state. At least 200 accidents were reported in Tampa Bay, mostly on bridge overpasses. The Tampa Tribune said 79 people were treated across seven Hillsborough hospitals for accident-related injuries. Eight were in critical condition. Two accidents involved school buses taking children to school, although no serious injuries occurred.
By 8:45 a.m., I-275 and I-4 had been closed off. The Howard Frankland Bridge closed, while the Gandy Bridge and Courtney Campbell Causeway remained open. Police advised drivers to stay home.
Only one fatality was reported — Sgt. David John Bibelhauser, a 29-year-old MacDill Air Force Base technical sergeant. Bibelhauser’s car was one of nine in a pileup on the I-75 overpass above Florida Avenue. While trying to help a fellow stranded driver, he slipped on the ice and fell off the 30-foot overpass. He later died of a broken back and fractured skull at Tampa General Hospital.
“It’s fortunate early action was taken to close the urban sections of the interstate system," read an editorial published the day after the storm in The Tampa Times. "Those of us who ventured onto the expressways in the predawn hours, before they were officially closed, can testify that it was a thrill ride unequaled by anything at Disney World. Those of us who got off quickly were lucky.”
Energy woes cause snow days for kids and adults alike
Tampa Electric Co. couldn’t keep up with the demand for power caused by the chilly weather. It cut back service to phosphate plants in Hillsborough and Polk. Dangerous roads hindered the paths of school buses, causing some Hillsborough students to miss their trips to school. Later sessions were cancelled so that kids wouldn’t have to ride on chilly buses after the temperatures dropped.
Florida Power and Light Co. wasn’t able to heat schools in Pinellas County the day after the storm, so those students got the day off. Workers in Florida Power’s corporate offices in St. Petersburg were also sent home.
At USF, about 300 students celebrated the snowfall when newscasters first announced the weather around midnight. A report in the Tampa Tribune describes how some watched for the first sign of flakes outside, then ran through the dorms to tell the others.
Wrapped in blankets, the students ran outside and chanted “We want snow!” Eleven men stripped down and ran around the crowd, while some women performed stripteases in front of their dorm windows for the people outside. The Tribune reported that about 1,000 students missed 8 a.m. classes the next morning.
Information from this report came from the Times archives. Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Gabrielle Calise at [email protected] or follow @GabrielleCalise.