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Kirk Mellish's Weather Commentary

Posted: 4:00 a.m. Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Superstorm 1993 March Blizzard 

By Kirk Mellish

For many in Atlanta it was their first experience with "thundersnow" heavy snow falling with thunder and lightning...

The “1993 Superstorm,” also known as the “Storm of the Century,” was one of the most massive and intense cold-season storms ever to strike the Eastern United States. At one point, the March 12–14, 1993, cyclone and its trailing cold front stretched from Canada, through Cuba (where winds exceeded 100 mph), and on to Central America. The storm originated as a cluster of thunderstorms over Texas on the morning of March 12. As the late winter storm moved over the warm Gulf of Mexico waters, a storm of hurricane proportions began to take shape. Many buoys in the central Gulf recorded wind gusts over 100 mph. A cluster of tornadoes hit Florida, while at the same time an 11-foot tidal surge hit the west coast of Florida during the night of March 12-13. A total of 44 people died in the Sunshine State. The storm grew because of a rare combination of three seperate jet streams merging into one with a clash of a winter air mass against a spring air mass providing an atmosphereic WMD.

Caption: Color-Enhanced Satellite Image of 1993 Superstorm.

Rivaling a hurricane, winds in the central Gulf of Mexico were clocked at 100-plus mph. In addition, more than 15 tornadoes and an 11-foot storm surge hit Florida's west coast, killing 44.

As retold by Popular Mechanics in a 2009 article, Coast Guard Petty Officer Rob Wyman had told the Washington Post, “The sea conditions [off Fort Myers, Florida] were absolutely incredible…. It looked like a big washing machine. There were huge waves and spray and hail.” These conditions ultimately sank the 200-foot freighter Fantastico as well as many smaller vessels. After the storm, the Coast Guard would report that 235 people were rescued in the Gulf of Mexico.

On the cold side of the storm, while in a different way, Popular Mechanics reported that conditions were no less severe: At the NWS's Birmingham, Alabama, office, meteorologists sat stunned and transfixed at their computer displays on March 12: “The models must be nuts. We're looking at 12 to 18 inches of snow … there's just no way. That's like 50 percent higher than any other previous record.” The models were vindicated, however, as Birmingham tallied 13 inches of snow, as temperatures dropped to a record 2°F. Even the Florida panhandle recorded six inches of snow.

Atlanta, Georgia, officially recorded only four inches of windblown snow (about twice its seasonal quota), but in the suburbs there was much more, as temperatures tumbled toward the teens. Even with advance warning, however, Atlantans were caught off guard, refusing to believe that snow and cold were coming when flowers were blooming and lawns were turning green. But the snow was forecast by some of us days in advance. I was the first to call for heavy snow and an actual blizzard for Atlanta, winning awards from the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association for my forecasting of the storm.

To the north and east, conditions deteriorated even more. Throughout the Northeast and Canada, there were record or near-record snowfall amounts, although the biggest cities were “spared” with only about 12 inches. In Latrobe, Pennsylvania, snow drifted as high as 10 feet, and Syracuse, New York, saw three feet on the level. The impact on travelers was tremendous: At one point, every airport from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Atlanta, Georgia, was shut down!

The 1993 “Storm of the Century” was a blockbuster storm in almost every respect, but despite its ferocity, it came as no surprise. For the first time, computer models had zeroed in on the track and intensity of a monster storm as much as five to six days in advance. This feat ultimately gave a significant boost to forecaster confidence in operational numerical weather prediction models. But unfortunately, even now—almost 20 years later—these models do have their shortcomings, as we've all seen.

Here are some additional “Superstorm” facts and figures:

  • Fatalities: About 300

  • Estimated damages: Almost $9 billion in 2011 dollars

  • Number of people who experienced effects: About 130 million—about half the country's 1993 population

  • Lowest pressure: 960 mb (28.35 inches), worthy of a Category 1 hurricane

  • Greatest official snowfall: 50 inches on Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, with 14-foot drifts

As James Spann said from Friday afternoon, March 12, 1993, through Saturday morning, March 13, the snow came down in a remarkable way. Winds gusted to hurricane force on ridge tops, and convective snow was widespread complete with thunder and lightning.

Birmingham’s official total was 13 inches, but some spots had almost two feet across North Alabama. Power was out for many days for some, and travel was nearly impossible with snow drifts you would expect to see in Buffalo or Chicago.

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The National Weather Service has listed the greatest snowfall amounts for their Atlanta reporting location at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport since 1949:

1) 7.9"......March 24, 1983
2) 5.8"......January 12-13, 1982 (became known as "Snowjam 82')
3) 5.0"......January 18-19, 1992
4) 4.6"......January 2-3, 2002
5) 4.4"......February 17-18, 1979 (all sleet/ ice pellets)
6) 4.2"......March 13, 1993 ("Blizzard of 93")
7) 4.2"......January 7-8, 1988 (sleet/ ice)
8 4.0"......March 10, 1960
9) 3.9"......February 1952
10) 3.6"....January 21-22, 1987

  • The "Storm of the Century" or "Blizzard of the Century" or simply the great blizzard of March 93. It was all that and more. 7 days in advance it was shown by the computer models (first model forecasts 1955, routine 1966) and with each passing day it looked worse. I remember the morning before the storm saying on air, "I can't believe what I am seeing, if the data doesn't change I am going to have to forecast a blizzard here in Atlanta". After predicting it I went to bed. I awoke in the wee hours looked out the window at a hard rain, and thought "I blew it, crap". Went to bed angry.
     Awoke a few hours later on that Saturday morning and noticed it was strangely bright for so early. I knew from being a kid in Chicago what that meant. SNOW DAY! The AMS/NWA gave me awards for my forecasting of that rare event none us will ever forget.
Kirk Mellish

About Kirk Mellish

Kirk Mellish is Atlanta's first and only full-time radio meteorologist. He's also the FIRST broadcast meteorologist in Georgia and the Southeast to earn the American Meteorological Society's new Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM) designation.

Send Kirk Mellish an email.

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