Free Daily Headlines


Set your text size: A A A

STORM OF THE CENTURY: 20 years ago, blizzard buried us

Paul Alexander shoveled out after the blizzard. Paul Alexander shoveled out after the blizzard.

As Friday dawned, Rocky Hyder wondered just how big the coming snowfall would be.

"What impressed me most was the fact that they used the term blizzard when they were forecasting the event. The weather forecast would say a blizzard event," said Hyder, who today is Henderson County's director of emergency services. Twenty years ago, he was fire marshal, second in command in the emergency management office to director Tom Edmunson.
If residents wanted to see the biggest snow of their lifetime, the storm of March 12-15, 1993, did not disappoint.
"A lot of people had a different interpretation of a blizzard. I heard some people proclaim, we haven't had a snow in two or three years, a good snow, and I hope we get a foot or two of snow. They really didn't know what they were asking for, so I think the real meaning of blizzard had escaped most of us because quite honestly I'd say the largest percentage living in Henderson County at the time had never seen a blizzard, so we didn't know what a blizzard was."
By Monday, March 15, they knew.
Dubbed almost immediately the "Storm of the Century," the blizzard of 1993 was a furious act of nature that formed in the Gulf of Mexico, mixed with cold air, marched up the entire length of the Eastern Seaboard and caused death and destruction not equaled since by a winter storm.
The no-name storm killed 310 people — more than three times the combined death toll from hurricanes Hugo and Andrew. It spawned 15 tornadoes and a 12-foot storm surge in Florida, killing 44 people. In North Carolina, 19 people died.
Snowfall totals ranged from 4 inches in Atlanta to 56 inches on Mount LeConte, Tenn. Mount Mitchell had just over four feet of snow, with 14-foot snowdrifts.
Wind gusts reached 144 mph in New Hampshire, 90 mph in Myrtle Beach and 101 mph on Flattop Mountain in Pisgah National Forest.
It was, as Hyder and other emergency personnel who spent the next four days in it, a real example of a blizzard. And the fire and rescue crews learned they were not quite ready for the snow and sleet that fell sideways, wind gusts approaching 100 mph and snow so deep even regular four-wheel drive trucks could not plow through.
"We had equipment to drive in a foot of snow even up to two feet of snow, we had equipment that was all-wheel drive with even fairly high ground clearance," Hyder said. "What we didn't have was equipment prepared to deal with a five-foot, six-foot snowdrift, and that really became a large issue for us, and I think that was another surprising element with the people in the county.... Our normal snow pattern is DOT's out, they clean the roads and within two days we can go out and go wherever we need to, we can get groceries and buy supplies. This event changed all that. It was four or five days before people could get out."
Some of the calls to isolated areas were perilous for fire crews.
A call that might take an hour out and back took four to five hours. Vehicles crept along through deep snow. Crew had to get out and clear trees. Emergency managers called for National Guard help and the local unit was activated. Humvees proved valuable but even they lost the battle at times.
Roger Snyder, who is now the Mills River mayor, scraping roads and helping neighbors with his tractor during the storm.
"As you turned off of 280 onto South Mills, the sheriff's department was in one of these Humvees," he said. "The front end had slid off, and they were stuck, so I had to take the back end of the tractor and pull the front of the Humvee up on the road to where they could get going."

I-26 remained closed
Getting to work was next to impossible for emergency personnel.
Frank Stout, a Highway Patrol trooper who lived in Mills River at the time, hitched a ride on a DOT motor grader to get to work, and then teamed with the National Guard to answer calls in a Humvee.
"I remember well wading waist deep for over a mile," he said. "I couldn't even get close to my house, couldn't even get there, even with a Humvee. It took a day or two before they could even get the roads busted out enough to get through. I think it took me probably 45 minutes to wade that far home. It was like one step forward and two steps backward."
The main challenge for rescue personnel was to clear the interstate highway of vehicles, and to check for occupants inside.
"We started getting a lot of calls from the interstate and we couldn't clear it," Hyder said. "All the equipment that the DOT had, they couldn't clear the interstate, partly because there were vehicles stalled on the interstate, in both lanes. The snow was so deep that the snowplows had to have some sort of momentum in order to clear the snow. ... So part of the initial task for the Humvees was to get those folks off the interstate and get 'em to a shelter so that they could make sure everybody was safe there. And a lot of those people had basically utilized all the gasoline they had trying to stay warm and that situation was deteriorating in a hurry."
Mobility was the biggest problem for the emergency workers.
"A mission that would normally take an hour to respond to and complete — those same missions because of the travel challenges were taking four to five hours," Hyder recalled. "So it was almost possible for us to move. That became such a big problem for us, one of our fire chiefs, and I'm not going to say who it was or what department it was, commandeered a bulldozer and he used that bulldozer to clear the main roads in his fire district. Much to the surprise of the man that owned that bulldozer. It was parked on a construction site and he cleared the main roads in the fire district. He did what he felt like he had to do."
Mills River firefighters had to call on heavy equipment, too.
"They had a medical emergency up on North Mills. They couldn't get to the house," Snyder said of Mills River firefighters. "So Carroll Whitaker had to bring his backhoe, blaze a trail up this road, and while he's blazing the trail with his front-end loader he's pulling the fire truck. Once they got up there, they took care of the patient, and when they tried to turn and go around, all these trees started falling. Then we had to go up there and cut the trees out of the road to where we could get the fire truck back out."
Two days later, the Highway Patrol was trying to reach a car wreck on Yellow Gap Mountain in Pisgah National Forest.
"I had to go back there, pick up the highway patrolman in my truck and carrying him up to that wreck," Snyder said. "The sheriff's department was paralyzed, the Highway Patrol was paralyzed. If it hadn't been for the local fire departments, I think there would have been a whole lot more loss of life. I even think that we actually set up old Army cots up in the upstairs of the Mills River fire department."
Fire crews trying to reach a house crossed a white clearing where roads were no longer detectable.
"There was a power pole and there may be part of a mailbox," Hyder said. "And a lot of the places that we were asked to go to, it turned into a hiking trip. The fire truck would go as far as it could and then you hiked in and got the people out as best you could."

Climbing a snowdrift
Fire stations throughout the county offered warmth and shelter for stranded people and the emergency management office opened the National Guard Armory as a shelter but a lot of people made it through with help from neighbors and family. Power outages were widespread. (At one point, 99 percent of customers in Polk County were without power.)
John Lampley, a Hendersonville native, loved at the time with his wife, Claudia, and their toddler, Lauren, on Kanuga Road. When they lost power, his father, Dr. Bill Lampley, came to the rescue in his four-wheel drive truck. DOT snowplows had been at work already, and their passes on Kanuga Road created an eight-foot snowbank for the Lampleys to climb.
"There was virtually no traffic at all," Lampley said. "There wasn't anybody in sight. It was days before anybody was out. The frustrating thing was, it was the best snow we had in years and you couldn't out to go sledding or anything."
The blizzard of '93 obliterated the usual pattern of a Southern snow followed by a warmup and clearing two or three days later. After two days of snow, lows plunged into single digits. The wind kept howling.
Weather forecaster Paul Speranza said in the days before the storm, forecasters called for a big snow.
"Most of the model runs said we were going to have a major snow event," he said. "They didn't have any real idea the storm was going to be as bad as it was."
He recalled that he and his wife, Kay, had driven from Asheville to their home on Long John Mountain in Hendersonville that Friday night. They would not leave their home for five days.
"Usually the snow didn't stay on the ground that long," he said. "We had temperatures back in the 50s again. One morning here we had lows in the low single digits."
In their recollections of the blizzard, people remember an unusual sight and sound: thunder snow.
"There was so much instability in the atmosphere because of the warm and the cold and the mixing," Speranza said. He said the thunder came on Saturday, along with snow, sleet, icing and high winds.
"This was more like a hurricane with winter elements than it was a regular winter snowstorm," Hyder said. "It was the first time I saw thunder snow. It thundered and lightninged during that event. A lot of people mentioned that it was incredibly unusual but it was eerie. We had whiteout conditions. You couldn't see 100 feet because of the wind."
Jaime Laughter was 12 years old when the storm came. That Friday night she had gone to her best friend's house for a birthday party.
"I was looking forward to getting stranded with my two best friends," she said. It didn't happen. Her dad, Sam Laughter, drove up in his four-wheel drive and picked her up. The other friend didn't make it home, and Jaime says she was glad in hindsight that she made it home safe with family. The Laughters still had power, and her dad kept the woodstove burning. Days later, the snow had stopped but the roads still were not clear.
Jaime and her dad hiked with her pony, Toby, to the Ingles supermarket in Etowah to get groceries.
"We didn't ride him," she said. "We took him to carry all the stuff."
The snow was deep, and for a 12-year-old it was an adventure.

Pulling together

The huge snow pileup, power outages and the cold challenged emergency personnel yet somehow they made it to calls, healed the sick, got people out.
"That event was really a crisis for this county for three days," Hyder said. "It didn't begin to stabilize until the end of the third day and it started improving the next day, and that was a combination of Mother Nature helping us out and the collective efforts (of neighbors). Everybody that had a tractor was out helping to clear roads. The farmers realized they needed to help get the road clear as much as they could because everybody was in a terrible situation. Folks that owned grading equipment went out and cleared the roads."
Stout, who retired from the Highway Patrol as a captain and is now a captain with the sheriff's department, said the blizzard forced him to fight through freezing cold and stinging horizontal sleet and snow.
"The wind would blow, at times you'd have whiteout conditions, but you pulled that toboggan down just a little bit tighter and kept on going," he said. "Rescue squads, fire departments, anybody that was involved in public service gave everything they had for days and days at a time without even regard for their own family. They did the best they could to take care of their family but they went and took care of others too. They unselfishly went and gave of their time for hours and hours and days on end to make sure others were safe."
And it worked. The Storm of the Century killed 33 people in North Carolina and Tennessee but none in Henderson County.
"A lot of people were inconvenienced but nobody died because of exposure to cold," Hyder said. "I attribute that not only to the fire service but neighbor checking on neighbor because clearly we could not get to everyone. 'Come down to my house, we may not have power but we've got a fireplace.'"
It was a storm to remember.
"It was by far the most severe snowstorm I had ever experienced," said Lott, the National Climatic Data Center scientist who wrote the report on the storm. "It was certainly one of the most severe blizzards we've had ever had in Western North Carolina, and I think for most people that lived here it was probably most severe blizzard they ever experienced."