1993 Storm of the Century: Occurred This Week

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Photo: NWS Collection
Photo: NWS Collection

This week marks the tragic anniversary to what has been described as “the storm of the century”, also known as “The Great Blizzard of 1993″.

The large cyclonic storm formed over the Gulf of Mexico on March 12, 1993, and over the next three days, the supercell reigned terror upon the East Coast from Central America to Canada, producing tornadoes, blizzards, hurricane force winds and extreme cold.

The first sign of unusual weather came on March 11, 1993, when temperatures over much of the eastern United States began to drop as a surge of arctic air swept across the Midwest and on to the East Coast.

Simultaneously, to the south, low pressure formed in Mexico and moved eastward into the Gulf, producing massive thunderstorms near its center.

In the hours ahead, the low rapidly deepened as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico during the afternoon and evening of March 12th and made “landfall” along the Florida Panhandle just after midnight on March 13th. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued over 100 people from ships in distress during the storm.

In Florida, the storm spurned 11 confirmed tornadoes and killed at least seven individuals. A study from the Cuban weather service found evidence of wind speeds up to 120 mph from severe thunderstorms spawned there and strong onshore winds along Florida’s west coast created a storm surge up to 12 feet high in Taylor County.

As the front moved northeastward and came in contact with the bitter arctic cold air, blizzards took the place of tornadoes; widespread heavy snow and blizzard conditions developed from Alabama and Georgia into the western Carolinas and Virginia. All-time records for snowfall were set in locations from Birmingham and Chattanooga to Asheville, then spreading north through the central Appalachians.

By early afternoon on March 13th, the central pressure of the low was lower than had been observed with any historic winter storm or hurricane across the interior Southeastern United States. All-time low pressure records were established in Columbia, Charlotte and Greensboro, even beating out the pressures observed just a few years earlier during Hurricane Hugo’s visit in September 1989.

A satellite image of the Storm of the Century on March 13, 1993
A satellite image of the Storm of the Century on March 13, 1993

Snow fell as far south as Jacksonville, Florida, and some areas of Central Florida received several inches of snow, making it the most significant winter storm to affect the state since 1899.

The storm severely impacted both ground and air travel. Airports were closed all along the eastern seaboard, and flights were canceled or diverted, thus stranding many passengers along the way. Every airport from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Tampa, was closed for some time because of the storm. Highways were also closed or restricted all across the affected region, even in states generally well prepared for snow emergencies.

In Snowshoe, West Virginia, appoximately 44-inches fell,  while 60-inches fell in Mount LeConte, Tennessee, and over four feet of snowfall was observed at North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell — snow remained on the ground there until April 12.

With more than 5 feet of snow on the ground in many parts of ppalachia, snowdrifts became a major issue, as windspeeds were recorded at 71 mph at the New River in North Carolina.

Soon, record drifts were seen as high as 35 feet. The volume of the storm’s total snowfall was later computed to be 12.91 cubic miles (53.8 km3), an amount which would weigh (depending on the variable density of snow) between 5.4 and 27 billion tons.

The volume of the storm’s total snowfall was later computed to be 12.91 cubic miles (53.8 km3), an amount which would weigh (depending on the variable density of snow) between 5.4 and 27 billion tons.

The weight of the record snow falls collapsed several factory roofs in the South, and snowdrifts on the windward sides of buildings caused a few decks with substandard anchors to fall from homes. Though the storm was forecast to strike the snow-prone Appalachian Mountains, hundreds of people were nonetheless rescued from the Appalachians, many caught completely off guard on the Appalachian Trail or in cabins and lodges in remote locales. Snow drifts up to 14 feet (4.3 m) were observed at Mount Mitchell. Snowfall totals of between 2 and 3 feet (0.61 and 0.91 m) were widespread across northwestern North Carolina. Boone, North Carolina—in a high-elevation area accustomed to heavy snowfalls—was nonetheless caught off guard by 36″ plus of snow and 24 hours of temperatures below 0 °F (−18 °C) along with storm velocity winds which (according to NCDC storm summaries) gusted as high as 110 miles per hour (180 km/h).

Boone’s Appalachian State University closed that week, for the first time in its history.

Stranded motorists at Deep Gap broke into Parkway Elementary School to survive and National Guard helicopters dropped hay in fields, to keep livestock from starving in northern North Carolina mountain counties.

Electricity was not restored to many isolated rural areas for up to three weeks, with power cuts occurring all over the east.

In total, the storm caused nearly $9 billion in damages and claimed the lives of at least 318 individuals.

Nearly 60,000 lightning strikes were recorded as the storm swept over the country for a total of seventy-two hours. As one of the most powerful, complex storms in recent history, this March 1993 storm was described as the “Storm of the Century” by many of the areas affected.

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