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The 1993 'Storm of the Century'

Originally published: Feb. 28, 2013
Last modified: Feb. 28, 2013

Jesse Campbell

Twenty years ago this March, Ashe County and the southern Appalachians was struck by a crippling cyclonic snowstorm that brought much of the county to a standstill.

Known by some meteorologists as the “Storm of The Century,” the now infamous “Blizzard of ‘93” brought a large swath of destruction that affected the entire eastern seaboard, according to the National Climatic Data Center. 

The storm formed in the Gulf of Mexico on March 12, 1993 before moving into the continental United States and Canada and later dissipated in the north Atlantic on March 15. 

Areas as far south as Alabama saw measurable snowfall, but the Appalachians and particularly the High Country withstood the brunt of the super storm. 

Snowfall totals of two to three feet were widespread throughout northwest North Carolina and Boone picked up an impressive 36 inches of snow along with storm winds that reached an excess of 100 miles per hour, according to the NCDC. 

Similar amounts were also reported throughout Ashe County while snowdrifts of 14 feet were also reported at nearby Mt. Mitchell.

Although the years since the storm have quickly passed, the memories of storm remain fresh in the minds of locals and county officials who experienced its impact first hand. 

Ashe Sheriff James Williams was a night patrol deputy with the sheriff’s office when the storm it. 

“We were working night shifts in blizzard conditions,” said Williams. “I remember the cold. The white out conditions. I remember having a hard time just getting anywhere and being stuck in snow drifts. We were also receiving reports of people running out of food. It was a tough time.”

At that time, the ACSO only had very few four-wheel drive vehicles.

“We had to double-up and ride together,” said Williams. “It was safer to ride together anyways.”

While the snow was impressive, Williams said the ’93 Blizzard paled in comparison to the Blizzard of 1960 that dumped nearly six feet of snow on the High Country during a month-long period. 

Scott Ballard, who was residing in Banner Elk and working at Lees-McRae College at the time, said he was away on spring break when the storm hit. 

“I tried to fly back to my originating airport (Johnson City, TN), but got stuck in Charlotte,” Ballard recalls. “Hopefully the first and last time I’ve slept on a floor in the airport. When I finally was able to fly in the next day, the plane flew over the mountains so we could see that the area was basically shut down. Interstate 26 and the highway from Elizabethton to Elk Park was barely open. We had one lane (open) and had to weave around stranded or abandoned cars.”

Aside from the towering drifts of snow that had now formed across the mountains, Ballard was also impressed by the sense of community that emerged from the storm. 

“The cool thing about that snow was that it was democratic in its affect,” said Ballard. “We all have stories to tell as we all felt its effects. I’ve always said that events like that bring out the absolute best in us. That theory gets proven over and over. Events like that bring us closer together.”

Stan Wilkinson, of West Jefferson, was a professor computer information systems at Appalachian State University when the blizzard struck Boone. 

Wilkinson said the university was shut down for at least a week.

“I remember pipes bursting in the buildings (on campus),” recalled Wilkinson. “It was a major matter for the maintenance people to keep the heat going.”

Simple, everyday tasks became nearly impossible as the blizzard’s onslaught continued throughout the week.

“You couldn’t get to the grocery store or anything and when the weather did break, you had to walk to wherever you went,” said Wilkinson. “It was just a nightmare to get anywhere. It took me a week to get my car out and it was three or four days before I could even see my car. The snow was over my head in some places.”

Some of the more somber moments of the storm came with reports of livestock freezing to death in fields scattered throughout the High Country, said Wilkinson. 

The ’93 Blizzard was also a milestone first for weather forecasters. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, computer weather models and data recognized the threat of a significant snowstorm as early as March 2. 

And by March 11, forecasters were convinced of the imminent danger lurking above in the storm. This was the first time meteorologists were able to accurately predict a storm’s severity that far in advance, said NOAA. 

“We were getting reports of bad weather, but no one took it more serious than usual,” said Wilkinson. “The university didn’t have all the equipment it does today, but they did the best they could. They were just trying to keep the infrastructure workable.”

For more information and stories, see Ashe Mountain Times.