Column – Snow, Lava and drought

Published 5:26 pm Tuesday, August 15, 2023

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1980 began with news of Middle East unrest. In January, stories from the front pages read, “Afghan leader warns he’ll seek more Soviet assistance,” “Soviet soldiers battled Afghan opposition forces 60 miles from the Pakistani border” and “Soviets have secured the Afghan capital of Kabul and have moved out to secure the central Asian country’s only major road network.” The reports also said the Soviet troops mortared and bombed major telegraphic switchboards and government telecommunications installations, cutting off most communications within Afghanistan.

Even Pope John Paul II ushered in the new decade by warning that a nuclear war in which 200 of the world’s 50,000 atom bombs were dropped could destroy all the major cities of the world and kill up to 200 million people.

The unrest raised concerns about oil prices. “Iranian Oil Minister Ali Akbar Moinfar warned Western Europe and Japan today that any country joining the United States in imposing economic sanctions against Iran ‘will be deprived of oil.’”

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In February, it was announced that the United States would boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics because the Soviet Union had ignored the deadline to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. “President Carter told the United States Olympic Committee over the weekend that American athletes should not participate in the Moscow Olympics and the committee has said it would abide by the president’s decision,” White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler said. Sixty-five countries joined the boycott of the Olympics.

Early in 1980, improvements to the Main Street bridge over the Nansemond River got an open door with the approval of the U.S. House of Representatives water resources bill. Included in the bill was legislation by Congressman Robert Daniel which de-authorized the river near Main Street for use as a navigable channel. If approved by the Senate and the president, the legislation would open the way for the construction of an ordinary fixed-span bridge.

At the end of February and beginning of March, Suffolk was buried in snow.

“The cost of living had continued to skyrocket. Gas was $1.20 a gallon. And it snowed a total of 43 inches within two months in the southern city of Suffolk. This was the ‘Winter of 1980.’ But when Suffolkians look back 20, 30 or even 40 years from now, recalling the infamous winter of ’8O, perhaps they will remember something else besides the rising inflation level or the price of gasoline. The 1980 blizzard may be remembered for how well the people of Suffolk reacted in a crisis situation and how a general good feeling of helping out our fellow man prevailed throughout the town. The weekend blizzard dropped 16 inches on Suffolk, coming close to breaking the ‘snowstorm of the century’ record of 17 inches on February 6. But in this most recent storm, gusts of wind piled up four- and five-foot high drifts, especially in the more rural areas where wind had an open sweep across fields. Many people were stranded in their homes Sunday and Monday. And the snow didn’t bother to discriminate. Even the people who run the city were unable to reach their offices Monday. Obici Memorial Hospital was having trouble transporting personnel to and from the hospital. They issued a call for volunteer drivers with four-wheel vehicles through radio and television. More than a dozen persons responded and began making runs taking exhausted personnel home through to the early morning hours Monday. Suffolk police reported about 15 volunteer drivers came to the rescue with their four-wheel drives, helping police reach impassable areas of the city.”

To contrast heavy snow on the East Coast, on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens blasted 1,300 feet of its top off in violent eruptions that sent hot mud, ash and gasses raging down its slopes. Nine fatalities were confirmed from the volcanic fury, and officials said that at least 21 others were missing. Heavy ash boiled out of the mountain, blotting out the sky and leaving gritty, slippery deposits on roads as far east as Montana and Wyoming, 500 miles away. National Weather Service officials said because the finer particles of ash had been blown into the stratosphere by upper-level winds, the dust could circle the globe for up to two years, possibly having an effect on worldwide weather patterns. 

First snow, then a volcano — if that didn’t make enough headlines, by the end of summer the area was facing severe drought conditions. In September, water rationing was being considered. “Portsmouth Water Co. customers may eventually find their bills multiplied by as much as 22 if they go beyond rationing quotas. Such quotas are not yet in effect. However, Portsmouth officials were reportedly considering them as late as yesterday, as they watched reservoir levels drop an average of one-half a percent a day under current drought conditions. ‘If the reservoirs get to 50%, we will have to take a hard look at rationing,’ Portsmouth utility director John A. Howell said. Under a rationing plan, if one is implemented, customers would be told to reduce consumption by a set figure. If the figure was 25%, any water used beyond 75% of last year’s consumption would come at a higher price. Customers now pay about 45 cents for each 100 cubic feet of water. If they went beyond a rationing limit, the price would shoot up to $10 for the excess water used. If Portsmouth does go to a rationing plan, that would be the third major move it has made to counter this year’s drought. It began by asking for citizens voluntarily to cut back, then, on Sept. 8, initiated mandatory restrictions. Under the most recent phase, users were prohibited from watering lawns, washing cars, buildings or sidewalks, filling swimming pools or running ornamental fountains.”