A storm prompting a weather watch on Wednesday afternoon in 1993 barreled into Haywood County that weekend as the “Storm of the Century,” taxing rescue workers, power line workers and farmers to their limits, stranding hikers caught unaware in the Smoky Mountains and forcing motorists on Interstate 40 to take shelter.

While coastal N.C. counties hunkered under brutal winds and tidal surges, the mountains sank under a blanket of snow whose depth ranged from 18 to 36 inches in Haywood County on March 12 and 13. High winds bared some spots and piled the snow in 6- to 10-foot drifts elsewhere, often in roadways. That wind and snow created white-out conditions that made driving almost impossible.

Caught by surprise

Deb Shook: “They had predicted a big snow, but that morning it was just too warm to consider snow. The kids went to school and a friend and I went shopping in Asheville. We stepped out of a store just in time to hear the announcement that school was being let out immediately. We looked at each other in disbelief, for we were both in short-sleeve shirts with no jackets. About that time, these huge snowflakes (almost like snow wads) began falling from the sky ... .”

Few people had any idea what was in store for the next 24 hours. The storm was still creating surges in the Gulf of Mexico, would not make landfall over Florida until about midnight, but its band of moisture was streaming northward into Virginia. The National Weather Service was warning of the potential for blizzard conditions, but the balmy weather, just a week away from spring’s official beginning, made a blizzard seem remote and unlikely.

Cathy Fisher: “I worked/lived part time on Chambers Mountain at the fire tower (for the N.C. Forest Service). I was also a volunteer firefighter and at that time worked part time with Haywood County Emergency Management. That morning, some friends and I decided to eat lunch together before the snow started. It started snowing while we were eating, and within an hour, we already had our trucks in four-wheel drive. The next few days and nights were a blur, but I do remember working to get shelters open, checking on stranded motorists on the interstate, and taking food, water and medicines to residents of Haywood County. The National Guard came in with Humvees, so it made traveling in the snow easier than using pickup trucks ... .”

The slick roads, blinding snow and deep drifts brought traffic on Interstate 40 and almost all highways to a complete stop. Motorists who could make it off the interstate piled up at truck stops, service stations, anywhere they could park and find heat. People were sleeping in restaurants and stores, wherever they could find a bench or a spot on the floor. At truck stops, some truckers allowed stranded motorists to catch some rest in their sleeper cabs.

When the interstate closed, troopers and National Guardsmen checked the interstate for stranded motorists, going vehicle to vehicle. Some people chose to stay with their cars, but as temperatures plunged into the teens, most of them changed their minds. Rescuers transported about 80 people off the interstate to a shelter at Jonathan Valley Elementary School.

Rescue by tarp-sled

At their home near North Canton Elementary School, Willa and Edward Carswell began working to clear snow from their sliding glass doors. When 73-year-old Willa fell and her foot “flopped over like a chicken neck,” as she described it, she knew the injury was serious. She called the emergency room and asked if treatment of her injury could wait until the storm cleared. They told her to call 911.

Members of the Haywood County Rescue Squad, the Emergency Medical Service and the National Guard arrived at her home on foot. They tied Willa Carswell’s legs together, strapped her to a backboard, then, placing the backboard on a tarp, pulled her 1 ½ miles to an emergency vehicle. Hospital X-rays confirmed her leg was broken in two places. Willa Carswell recovered from her injuries, living another 20 years until her death at age 93.

Meeting the needs

Emergency crews and volunteers worked almost to the point of collapse. EMS director Marty Stamey later described 36-hour shifts for some rescue workers, much of that involved in strenuous effort. A multitude of calls came in that Friday and Saturday, and rescuers had to hike up to 4 miles to reach callers because of blocked roads, usually carrying a stretcher in case it was needed. In addition to emergency calls, county rescue workers picked up and transported medicine and food for those in need, and helped relocate people to shelters during power outages. The 86 calls recorded for the weekend did not include those extra services.

Cathy Fisher: “There was an elderly couple in Canton near Riverside church that couldn’t get out to get their medicine. We went to the drugstore to pick it up for them. … They were out of power, but they had a wood stove. She made us lunch while we were gone and made us eat when we got back with their medicines. She was crying when we left and she couldn’t stop hugging us. I don’t remember their name, and I don’t think I ever saw them again. … I always smile when I think about that couple.”

Dispatchers were also working long hours

Deb Shook (dispatcher in 1993): “I had to be at work for the 3-11 shift. … I packed my things, including a blanket, pillow, food and drink, because the way that it was snowing, I knew I couldn’t get a ride home. Yes, I slept at 911 that night, along with another telecommunicator, several deputies, the fire marshal and others. … A gentleman called 911, and I answered. He said that he had an emergency — he needed the National Guard to bring him a gallon of milk. I asked him how many babies were in the house. He said none. I asked if his water was frozen. He said, “Nope.” I then asked how many people were there. He said, “Just me.” I then asked him if there was anything in the house to drink. He said ‘Yeah I got Coke and coffee and tea. I just saw on the TV to call because the National Guard was out with them there Humvees so they could get around in the snow, and I forgot to grab a gallon of milk on the way home.’ He didn’t get a gallon of milk.”

Megan M. McCoy: “My Mom was burning magazines and food boxes for us to stay warm. Our chimney caught on fire, and our neighbor climbed on the roof and shoveled snow down the chimney ‘til the fire went out. I was 9 years old.”

At Jonathan Valley Elementary School, custodian Georgia Price came in as den mother for stranded motorists taking shelter. She collected blankets, contacted local restaurants, recruiting food and cooks to feed her charges. Restaurant and business owners throughout Haywood County volunteered their time and food to help feed rescue workers and those stranded without transportation.

Neese Morris (wife of pharmacist Bill Morris): “Bill had to fill prescriptions. He walked from Thomas Park to Smith’s Drugs to take care of people. All the kids’ friends came to be snowed in with us. We cooked on the outside grill. Kept warm by three fireplaces.”

(Editor’s note: If you enjoyed learning about or reliving 1993’s Storm of the Century, be sure to read Part Two next Saturday.)

Rescuing the stranded – man and beast

Meanwhile, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Park Rangers were scrambling to find hikers lost or unaccounted for during the blizzard. In a time before cell phones were common, many hikers had been caught unawares by the storm. From the start of the blizzard Friday until the following Thursday, about 200 hikers were rescued by the Park Service and the Army National Guard from the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains. Teams used helicopters to scour for those who were stranded by high snows.

Farmers throughout Haywood County faced several challenges during the blizzard. For some, it was feeding their cattle. While tractors could plow through snowdrifts, farmers had to reach those tractors, trudging sometimes for miles. In areas with power outages, the blizzard put dairy farmers in a bind; they needed their electric-powered milkers to milk the cows. Without milking, cows could develop not only discomfort but disease. Others who did not lose electricity were forced to pour out thousands of gallons of milk when tanker trucks could not reach the farms for pickup. Many farmers in the county lost calves and other livestock to the storm, though one farmer, Dennis Francis, spotted a newborn and waded through chest-deep snow to carry it to shelter. That calf, warmed to life in the family basement, became a household pet.

Keeping the lights on

One of the most unrelenting challenges fell upon local power line workers, who scrambled to maintain, then repair, lines from Friday afternoon until a week after the storm. Much of Haywood County weathered the storm with power on, thanks to workers for Haywood Electric Membership Cooperative and Carolina Power & Light, as well as their contractors. Linemen described working 16-hour days continually during and after the storm. From Fines Creek to Chambers Mountain, crews responded to sporadic outages caused by heavy snow and wind. And when they couldn’t reach the sites by vehicle, they hiked in.

“When we were going, we were pushing snow with the headlights,” Lineman Lee Gaddis told The Enterprise Mountaineer. “Sometimes, we were walking waist-deep in snow carrying about 40 pounds of equipment.

Haywood EMC crews restored power to their last customer by late Tuesday, March 16. By contrast, some Henderson County customers, with different power suppliers, did not regain electricity for a week. That one last HEMC job, however, also offered one last surprise for the worn-out work crew. According to reporter Heidi Van Dine’s story, “the crew again had been forced to walk about a mile in the snow to reach the house (in Soco). After they had finished their work and were ready to head home for some much-needed and deserved rest, they returned to their trucks only to find one of the pickups had burned down to the tires.”

Next week: More personal memories of the Blizzard of ‘93, its national path and impact, and the numbers that help tell the story.

Thank you, this week and next, to members of the Facebook group Nostalgic Haywood County for sharing their memories of the Storm of the Century.

{p class=”p1”}{span class=”s1”}By Kathy N. Ross{/span}

{p class=”p2”}{span class=”s1”}The Blizzard of 1936 is the one older folks remember as the fiercest snowstorm in memory, but the Blizzard of 1993 is one most of us can remember, the one called the “Storm of the Century,” and with good reason. This was the storm that spawned tornadoes in the Gulf of Mexico, flooding in Florida, heavy snowfall from Alabama through Maine. The National Weather Service ranks it as one of the deadliest and most costly weather events of the 20{/span}{span class=”s2”}{sup}th{/sup}{/span} {span class=”s1”}century in the United States, more damaging than most hurricanes that make landfall.{/span}

{p class=”p2”}{span class=”s1”}The storm began as a low-pressure weather front along the Texas Gulf Coast during the day of March 12 and was fueled by thunderstorms over the Gulf of Mexico. As the cyclonic storm moved west to east over the Gulf, it strengthened. The Coast Guard rescued more than 100 people in distress. The 200-foot freighter Fantastico sank, and the Coast Guard was able to rescue only three of the crew; another seven died. At least another eight vessels sank, and in New Orleans, a 900-foot freighter was torn loose from its moorings. The storm and its resulting tornadoes tore into Florida in the early morning of March 13; storm surges reached 12 feet along parts of the state’s west coast.{/span}

{p class=”p2”}{span class=”s1”}As the low moved across southern Georgia, it collided with cold weather already in place, creating heavy snowfall and thunder snow, lightning storms with snowfall. Wind and snow created blizzard conditions. This was no gentle snowfall, but a whiteout, with wind whistling, driving animals either to shelter or destruction — birds unfortunate enough to be caught out of shelter were blown into the snow to perish while others were smothered as they crowded into birdhouses or other confined spaces.{/span}

{p class=”p2”}{span class=”s1”}All-time high records for snowfall were set from Alabama northward. And by the afternoon of Saturday, March 13, the barometric pressure at the center of the storm was lower than it had been for any storm or hurricane across the Southeast, even lower than the previous record set by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. As the mountains contended with the blizzard, the coastal counties shuddered under winds, recorded as high as 93 miles an hour. While that region received only a trace of snow, homes fell to wind and tidal surge.{/span}

{p class=”p2”}{span class=”s1”}The National Weather service recorded 208 deaths blamed directly on the Storm of the Century and estimates that at some level, it affected the lives of 40% of the U.S. population. About 10 million electrical customers lost power due to the storm. (Thanks to the work of power crews, portions of Haywood County did not lose power, though other remote regions went without electricity for a week).{span class=”s1”} {/span}{/span}

{p class=”p2”}{span class=”s1”}The 1936 and the 1993 storms have some strong parallels (much like the two greatest flooding events of our past century, but more about that in a future history feature). Both storms occurred in mid-March, the first on March 17 the second on March 13, respectively. Both developed so rapidly that in both cases, people had limited warning. The local 1936 accounts and the national 1993 accounts both refer to thunderstorms attached to the systems bringing the blizzards.{/span}

{p class=”p2”}{span class=”s1”}Sources: Superstorm of 1993 ‘Storm of the Century,’ from the National Weather service, accessible through {span class=”s3”}www.weather.gov{/span}; Rescue Efforts Swamp Coast Guard, by William Booth, the Washington Post, March 16, 1993.{/span}

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