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May 10, 1990 Snow - Tree Damage across Waukesha, WI

May 10, 2012
May 10, 1990 - Waukesha, Wisconsin Snow Event

The last major snowfall usually ends in March and sometimes early April across southern Wisconsin. With that said, if you ask Waukesha residents when the last major snowfall usually occurs, they have a specific date in mind. The date they would probably mention is May 10th. It was on this date in 1990, a major snowstorm caught many meteorologists by surprise and had dumped nearly 8 inches of snow across Waukesha. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 75% - 80% of the 30,000 city trees in Waukesha had been damaged by the heavy snow. Here is my recollection of that storm at the young age of 10.

May 9, 1990 - The Eve of the Snowstorm

Our family lived on the western side of Waukesha, Wisconsin just across the street from Waukesha North High School. That evening, Channel 4 meteorologist Paul Joseph mentioned heavy rain was forecast across southern Wisconsin throughout the night. The National Weather Service had issued a Flash Flood Watch for most of the Milwaukee metro. The rain had begun in the evening and was heavy at times, but nothing suggested any snow.

I woke up at 3:00 A.M. to use the bathroom and quickly took a peek outside to see something I didn't expect to see. Heavy Snow! I glared at the street light for a short time and watched the snow come down at a heavy pace. The ground began to cover with snow at that point. The experience was surreal because there was no snow in the forecast. Plus, when does it ever snow in May?

May 10, 1990 - Major Tree Damage across Waukesha

My battery operated alarm went off in the morning, but noticed our power was out. I stared outside the bedroom window and saw something out of a horror movie. There was about 4 - 6 inches of heavy, wet snow on ground, but what made this storm different was very obvious. The damage it had impacted to the city trees was devastating. Our birch tree in front of the house was caked full of snow. There wasn't even a single branch that was able to stand up. The tree trunk from the base to the top had resembled a snake on the ground. I looked up the street and noticed more trees had been damaged. An old Oak tree near our house had a major branch break off and the look of the tree was drastically different. I checked the backyard and the trees were mostly all severely damaged.

School had been closed for very good reason. Plows weren't prepared for this surprise event, nor were the buses. My parents drove me to my grandparents house to stay there for the day. On our journey, many city trees in Waukesha were destroyed. The following day, I helped my parents clean up the tree debris in the backyard as did everyone else in the city. Our birch tree did come back to life and eventually rose back up, but it failed to stand tall like it once did. Waukesha residents had so many damaged tree branches to be picked up by the city, that our tree debris wasn't collected until late that summer. By that time, most of the grass near the curb had died.

How did this happen?

Snowstorm - City LightsI've always wondered how the May 10, 1990 Snow event had occurred. What did the meteorologists miss? I assume computer model forecasting wasn't as reliable some 22 years ago, but I'm not sure. There isn't much weather data to analyze from 1990. Did the rain change to snow due to dynamic cooling? I'm pretty confident today with the advancement in forecasting skills, an event like May 10, 1990 would have been predicted, but who knows. It was a rare and unusual weather event.

Every year when April comes around and most Wisconsin residents think winter is over. Many Waukesha residents wait until May 10th. Being a Waukesha resident, once we get past that date, I think we can relax and kiss winter goodbye.


Jan 23, 2015 - 12:25 pm
I will never forget... May 9th, 1990, my mother told my father that she's turn 40 when hell froze over. It was in fact her 40th birthday, that day, and the next moring we awoke to this suprise snow!