The Blizzard of 93

90.3 WBHM | Burrrmingham -- The Blizzard of 1993 was a vivid reminder that the weather in Alabama is anything but predictable. That week, temperatures were in the 60's, spring fever was evident everywhere across the South, flowers were in bloom and grass was turning green. But weather forecasters were beginning to see very un-Springlike weather on their medium-range computer models.

On a sunny day just a day or two before history was made in central Alabama, Brian Peters couldn't believe his eyes.

"The models must be nuts. The computer models we use... cause we're looking at 12-to-18 inches of snow... there's just no way."

One of many meteorologists at the Birmingham National Weather Service office, Peters knew a major winter storm would begin Friday, March 12, 1993.

NWS Brian Peters"You look at the records... you know... the record snow for Birmingham's eleven inches, so the models are forecasting 12-to-18... I mean, you know, that's like 50 percent higher than any other previous record. It was a 24-hour forecastÂ… and we're thinking if we say that, the public is going send the men in little white coats to put us away, you know?"

Ten years ago, ABC 33/40 Meteorologist James Spann was at Channel 6.

"I thought the computer models -- the dynamic modeling process that we all use in this business -- they were wonderful. As you know, the models pretty much called it days in advance."

The Monday before the storm, Spann saw the computer model forecast of a foot-and-a-half of snow by that Saturday morning.

Storm of the Century on satellite

"Our dilemma was what to say on television... how do you say this with a straight face when it's a sunny day and sixty-something degress and you're talking about a massive winter storm down the road?"

Never at a loss of words, Spann found a way to relay the danger to his audience. By Wednesday, when model after model had confirmed the worst for central Alabama, it was apparent this wouldn't be just any old winter snowfall.

"I got on television that night and said this could be a storm of historic proportion."

Blizzard track

In 1993, the low-pressure system that ultimately became the 'Storm of the Century' traveled from the Texas gulf coast to the Northeast. The low-pressure was SO deep, forecasters were calling it an inland hurricane.

Winds with the historic snowstorm were fierce causing blizzard conditions. Atop red Mountain, Channel 6 reported hurricane force winds of 74 miles an hour. Lightning and thunder accompanied the snow -- called thundersnow -- something never before seen by most people in Alabama. Snow had fallen on every square inch of the state. At least 16 people died from the inclement weather.

And the 'Storm of the Century' affected the entire eastern United States, bringing cities, including Birmingham, Atlanta and New York City to a grinding halt.

"It's called The Storm of the Century by a lot of people, and I understand that, because, really, if you look at the past 100 years, there was not storm of that magnitude, certainly not in March, not only here -- but that same system affected the entire eastern seaboard."

Blizzard snow depth in Alabama

Like other broadcasters, NBC13 Chief Meteorologist Jerry Tracey spent at least 5 days continuously on-the-air updating his audience about the severity of the storm.

Tracey says the best ingredients for a major snowstorm in Alabama include very cold air already in place, a storm system and lots of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. There was plenty of cold air in place the day prior to March 12, 1993, the deep, low pressure hugged the gulf coast, bringing tons of moisture. As a result, the snow and winds lasted from Friday afternoon into early Saturday morning.

About that time, Garrison Keillor, and the cast of A Prairie Home Companion came to Birmingham to perform a live, national broadcast at the Alabama Theatre.

Chris Bannon, then-Marketing Director for the show was told he would have to travel to Alabama, an oddity in his job. Most of his work didn't involve leaving Minnesota. But Bannon thought Alabama would be nice -- and warm -- in March.

"Even 40 degrees would've been a remarkable improvement! I thought, 'I'm finally going to get a little sunshine, a little warm weather...' And sure enough, when we were driving into town from the airport, it began snowing on Friday (laughs). It just made it more interesting for us... I think... and actually, I think it gave Garrison a lot of energy -- he did a really brilliant show about being in the middle of a blizzard in the South."

Alabama Theatre

Garrison Keillor sings Alabama/Oh Susanna melody: "...in Al - a - ba - ma, hah! Al -a - ba - ma, in the middle - of - a - winter - stoooooooorm."

About 500 people showed up for the performance. Many walked in without tickets because there were no ushers to accept them. Despite being sold out for months, no one expected a full house. Many of the people, who did show up, offered to help in one way or another, something that Chris Bannon remembers vividly.

"We had total strangers who were volunteering to help us get the equipment that we needed, to help us get people to the show -- you know -- they really, people pitched in, in that kind of 'Only in America' you like to think way."

But the help wasn't limited to A Prairie Home Companion. Because hundreds of thousands of people were without power, the help continued for days: people in four-wheel-drive trucks getting oxygen for the needy, firewood for the cold, and the sick to the hospitals. Alabama Power crews worked feverishly to get the lights -- and in many cases, heat -- back on.

When people in Birmingham needed help, neighbors came to the rescue. Jerry Tracey remembers the generosity...

"I think everybody to an individual was impressed about how people came together that weekend, uh, how they really rose to the occasion."

The deep snow paled in comparison to the heroic efforts of everybody in this area. Ten years ago today, a frozen chaos began. We remember it as what went wrong with our weather -- and what went right with our spirit.



Additional information on the SuperStorm:

Listen Now | Hear the feature story commemorating the Blizzard of 1993
Listen Now | Steve Chiotakis (then-Steve St. George) remembers forecasting and broadcasting challenges

90.3 WBHM | See pictures from the storm
More | SuperStorm: a University of Illinois case study
More | NWS Birmingham remembers the Blizzard of 1993.