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1979 unforgettable, catchy name or not

An auseems protected by snowbanks three sides as it sits its parking space Armitage Avenue near Larrabee from Blizzard 1979

An auto seems protected by snowbanks on three sides as it sits in its parking space on Armitage Avenue near Larrabee from the Blizzard of 1979 on January 16, 1979. | Sun-Times Library Photo

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Updated: February 17, 2013 4:25PM

As winter storm Nemo barreled down the Northeast last weekend, I momentarily and perhaps selfishly felt a sense of relief.

At least it wasn’t us buried deep in treacherous conditions. Chicagoans know a lot about that, and those of us about 40 or older can remember the brutal conditions of 1978-79.

Many Chicagoans also have not-so-fond memories of being stranded in the Blizzard of ’67, but that season total of 67.7 inches, the official amount recorded at O’Hare Airport by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, didn’t come close to 1978-79.

Just a grade-schooler in ’79, I had to find my way around snow hills just to reach the bus stop. We walked along the street because several feet of snow covered parkways and sidewalks. A neighbor’s old, white car seemed barely visible underneath several feet of snow and ice.

The Blizzard of ’79 dumped about 20 inches of snow on Chicago, contributing to a season total of 83.7 inches at O’Hare, according to NOAA. For perspective, Chicago’s next highest total since was 60.3 inches in 2007-2008.

The cold is what separates Chicago from Boston, a densely populated city which has been socked by higher snow totals compared with Chicago in recent decades. Nemo hit Boston’s Logan Airport with more than two feet of snow. Just two winters ago 81 inches of snow piled on that city.

But Bostonians generally don’t struggle through bitter temperatures Chicagoans usually endure.

I am not sure which is worse: frigid temperatures or heavy snowfall.

The problem with 1979 was that we had both. We should have been sledding down those makeshift mountains, but that winter was unbearably cold. That January ranks as one of the coldest in Chicago history.

Later in the spring I saw T-shirts in Woolworth’s and Kmart that said, “I survived the Blizzard of ’79.”

I have always liked the ring to those words. These days storms need catchy titles. The Weather Channel coined Nemo, and news outlets and social media picked up on it, though NOAA will not officially recognize it.

A storm name gives it historical context, Bryan Norcross, senior executive director of content at the Weather Channel, told me Friday. “Storms live on with names.”

He mentioned a Christmas blizzard in 1982 (it hit Denver) and added, “If it had been called Brutus, you’d still be talking about it.”

I think names should come naturally like our Groundhog Day storm two years ago. But the Weather Channel picked out storm names for this winter months ago when it adopted a policy to name all major storms, Norcross said.

Not long after we heard about Nemo, we found out about another big storm brewing out West. Norcross’ team named it Orko. I suppose names need to be short to accommodate Twitter’s 140-character limit.

Norcross said they will use Roman and Greek names to avoid potential hurricane names, which are chosen and recognized by meteorological and hurricane centers in an official way.

Norcross told me that in Europe, major storms have been named for 50 years. It makes sense to name them here, too. He pointed out people raise their awareness when a storm is named.

Yet I can’t help but feel a bit of nostalgia for the classics like the Blizzard of ’79.

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