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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Fifteen years ago today came The Storm of the Century

Snowfall in Asheville, North Carolina from The Storm of the Century,
March 12-14 1993

The meteorologists saw it coming five days ahead. A high-pressure Arctic system was heading south across the Midwest states, brought down low by a jet stream from Canada. It was set to converge with intense low pressure over the Gulf of Mexico, and was then projected to head north and east... bringing massive amounts of moisture and cold temperature with it.

But for most of us here in north-central North Carolina at the time, this meant nothing. It had been at least three years since we had seen any decent snowfall. There were many young children who couldn't even remember what snow looked like: they had no concept of the stuff. After three years without snow, it was beginning to seem like a mythic substance that one only found in exotic locales.

Nobody that I knew felt imminently threatened, either. Why should we have been? On March 10th of that year, spring was tantalizing us with temperatures in the fifties and promising to get even warmer. Maybe if I had been paying attention to the weather forecasts more, I would have heard something different. I was so wrapped-up in my first year of college and part-time job (saving up to go visit a friend in Europe that summer) and everything else, that I hadn't had time to watch Randy Jackson's forecast from WFMY News 2 out of Greensboro.

The only hint that I heard about something brewing came on the night of the 10th, at the session of Boy Scout Leader Training that I was attending every Wednesday night at the Cherokee Scout Reservation. Dale Weber, the Scoutmaster of our troop, told us that the camping trip we were scheduled to take that weekend as the final part of our training might have to be postponed because of "chance of snow". And then Dale showed us a "preview" of what the meteorologists were calling for: turned out it was an old picture of the Dust Bowl from the Great Depression.

I thought Dale was just joking...

Two days later, on the afternoon of March 12th, 1993, it started.

I was finished with classes at the community college for the day and had the night off from my job at a sandwich shop in town. Dad asked if I'd like to ride with him up to Ridgeway on the other side of the state line in Virginia to get some lottery tickets. We got back around an hour later, maybe about 4:30 p.m.

As soon as we got out of the truck the snowflakes - the first real snow that this part of North Carolina had seen in many years - began to fall.

By 5:30 the snow was falling at a hard clip. The mercury was dipping sharply.

The six-o'clock news came on. We had it tuned to WFMY. The only thing the news coverage was about was the weather. And the only thing that finally stopped WFMY from talking about the weather was when the station went dark the next day for several hours.

By 7 o'clock Friday night, reports were coming in from all over about the precarious condition of the roads. My sister was already at work at Short Sugar's Drive-In, a famous barbecue joint in Reidsville. Mom, Dad and I wondered if we should go there when the place closed to pick her up. That's what we did, and we took it very slow driving back to our home ten miles away. We returned to our driveway around 9:30 that night.

I think we knew even then: we weren't going anywhere for awhile.

And the snow kept falling. And falling. And falling...

It was fifteen years ago today, on March 12th, 1993, that The Storm of the Century began.

For the next five days, much of the country was immobilized from one of the greatest meteorological catastrophes ever recorded. At its height the storm stretched from Central America all the way to large parts of southeastern Canada. The storm caused major damage in Cuba. But it was the eastern United States that was to bear the brunt of the assault. During its worst period over half the continental United States was being hit by the monstrous system, forcing every airport from Atlanta to Nova Scotia to close.

It was the worst winter storm of 20th century American history, and one of the most destructive on record ever. The blizzard killed more than 300 people and caused at least $10 billion in damages.

The Storm of the Century had it all: record-low temperatures, record-shattering snowfall, hurricane-force winds, multiple tornadoes, damaging surf in the coastal areas. You name it, it happened somewhere or another during the Blizzard of 1993.

Electrical power in many places went out because of wind and ice damage to the power lines. We were fortunate to not have to experience that: our power stayed on the whole time. Lisa has told me though that they lost power where she lived in Georgia: with no electricity to run the freezer, her family brought the frozen food outside and stored it in the snow until the juice flowed again.

Snowfall totals were anywhere from a few inches in Alabama and Georgia – places that are not used to so much snow – to as much as forty to sixty inches in the Appalachian Mountains. Mount Mitchell recorded a snowfall of 50 inches. East of the mountains, accumulation increased with the more northern latitudes.

At our home in rural Rockingham County, we measured over 20 inches of snow by Saturday evening. I saw the temperature as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Our cocker spaniel puppy, Bridget, was begging to go outside. We finally opened the door for her late Saturday afternoon. Bridget went to the edge of the carport, saw the snow piled high, thought better of it and promptly came back inside.

I had the curtains of my bedroom window pulled open all day Saturday so that I could watch the snowfall. At 4 p.m., the blizzard was so fierce, and the wind driving the snow so hard, that I could not see the road outside the house at all, much less my grandmother's house beyond it.

I've already mentioned that the storm caused WFMY to stop transmitting. All of the other channels also had continuous coverage of the storm, but eventually most of the television and radio stations in the area also got knocked-out at some point because of the blizzard. The local ABC affiliate came back on the air on Saturday night, just in time for the start of the episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles featuring the return of Harrison Ford as Indy.

We went to sleep that night to the sound of the wind still driving the snow furiously against the side of the house.

But when we woke up the next morning, the system had moved out. In its wake, there was the purest white, most virgin and unsoiled landscape that I have ever seen in my entire life. As far as the eye could see, there was a sheet of thick snow and ice. For as long as I live, I'm going to carry the overwhelming vision of that day with me. And I wish that I had a good camera at the time to chronicle it with. My sister did, and she has some great pictures of the countryside, but she couldn't get them to me in time for this article.

Take my word for it: it was... beautiful.

The temperatures remained steadily cold during the next few days. Bridget finally got to get out of the house, and she looked like a miniature polar bear as she ran atop the snowdrifts. My sister and I were able to go sledding for the first time in five years. Bridget rode with us a few times, too.

And then, just like that... it was gone. Come Wednesday, temperatures were starting to increase. We were all able to get out again, at least around here anyway. We had our Scout Leader Training camping weekend a few days later and there was still quite a lot of snow on the ground in Caswell County, but on the drive back on Sunday morning the once-mighty Storm of the Century had been reduced to a few patches of dirty white snow in roadside ditches and in the occasional patch of woodland shade. A few days later, you would have hardly known that the worst blizzard in living recollection had ever taken place.

But it did. And fifteen years ago today, The Storm of the Century blasted into town and indelibly into our memory. I had never seen anything like it, and I don't know if any other experience will ever come close. My biggest regret looking back on those crazy four or five days in March of 1993 was that I was not as close to God then as I am now. Had I been, I would have been much more humbled by the event.

But even then, standing in the field behind our house, looking across that frozen tundra in the heart of Dixie, I couldn't help but feel utterly moved by the awe and majesty of it all. Maybe it was God preparing me for something later on. I like to think so, anyway.

And Lord willing, maybe my children will get to see something like The Storm of the Century someday. If that ever happens, Lisa and I will share with them our own stories of the 1993 blizzard, so that they too might be moved by the magnificent grandeur of the cycles of creation.

Okay so... anyone else remember The Storm of the Century in 1993? :-)


Anonymous said...

I was in Delaware and we got 3 feet of snow. This was a storm for the ages.

AfterShock said...

I was living in Clyde, NC at the time of the storm - about 30 miles west of Asheville - and I believe we got upwards of 2.5 feet of snow. They closed schools and they never could quite get the roads cleared, so we were out for about 2 weeks. It was great (from my school-age perspective)! Although, after about a week, I was a little tired of all the white and getting bored with little to do around the house... :)