March weather in Chattanooga is like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.
In the last 50 years, the month has seen the area’s most memorable ice storm (1960), its most destructive flood (1973), its biggest snow (1993) and its most damaging tornado (1997).
“When you get to this time of year,” said Lyle Wilson, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service Office at Morristown, Tenn., “things are starting to warm up, so the systems can be very strong.”
March can be very dry, he said, “but it can be a very unsettled month.”
The 1960 ice storm affected Lookout Mountain and Signal Mountain far more than it did Chattanooga, according to newspaper reports of the day.
On Lookout Mountain alone, according to then-Mayor Cecil Woods, the storm did $2.5 million to $5 million damage to shrubbery and approximately $2.8 million damage to homes.
Ken Blair of Lookout Mountain said when he and his wife, Ann, got home from work on March 2, 1960, he felt fortunate to have an ax and some other tools in the trunk of his car so he could clear a path to his former home on Rainbow Trail.
“Power lines were down and branches as big as your arm,” he said in a recent interview.
Electricity and telephone service to the Blairs’ home was out. The couple spent the next four days with their neighbors, who had a fireplace, and the following week with Mr. Blair’s sister in Chattanooga.
The ice storm, said Signal Mountain resident Creed Bates, then the principal of City High School, was the mountain’s worst since 1905.
Temperatures that plunged in the single digits and two snows within the next nine days made the clean-up more difficult.
Mr. Blair said his family lost more than 20 trees.
“It was a mess,” he said. “It looked like a war-torn area.”
THE WATER RAN BACKWARDS
Seven inches of rain in 36 hours fueled the 1973 St. Patrick’s Day flood, from which 8,000 people were evacuated and which covered 21 percent — 10,685 acres — of the Chattanooga city limits, newspaper reports at the time said.
When the water receded, 2,400 homes and 524 businesses were damaged. Damage in Chattanooga was estimated to be $45-$50 million, and city and county losses were pegged at $66.5 million.
George Gannaway, who lived on Vannoy Drive in North Brainerd at the time, said his family had plenty of time to evacuate their just-sold home before floodwaters from Chickamauga Creek reached their home.
“Police came through with a loud PA system,” he said. “It must have been around midnight, but it was very late.”
After sending his wife and three young children to his parents’ house and moving his car to higher ground, Mr. Gannaway surveyed his neighborhood and saw water rise out of the storm sewer and flow into the ditches which usually empty into the sewer.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I was watching it run backwards.”
Mr. Gannaway said he spent the night with his neighbor as telephone services and electricity was lost.
The next morning, he said predictions of how much the water would rise were remarkably accurate. In near waist-deep water, he waded home, where he tied up drapes, put bedspreads and shoes on beds and removed the bottom drawers of all dressers.
As he left, Mr. Gannaway said, the outside water was up to the storm door and could be seen in the floor registers. When he walked out the door, a boat came by and took him to where he had parked his car.
The water, he said, receded fairly rapidly after reaching a foot high in the house. Based on a tip from his Realtor, he said he went to the house by boat, ripped out the carpet and threw it in the yard to allow the hardwood to dry.
Down the street in homes that got more water, Mr. Gannaway said, the hardwood expanded, buckled and burst.
In spite of it all, he said, the buyers went ahead with the deal to buy the house.
Headlines in 1993 Chattanooga newspapers said 8 to 12 inches, then 10 to 16 inches of snow, were expected to start on the evening of March 12.
When the snow stopped on March 13, 20 inches had fallen, marking the largest snow ever in the city.
As many as 60,000 people lost power, according to the Electric Power Board. Some 8,000 people in Hamilton and surrounding counties went to 100 shelters.
Amy Mildram of Signal Mountain said she stayed put in her home, where her daughter, Martha Kendall, and grandson, Robert Kendall, were visiting from Nashville on Mr. Kendall’s spring break.
“He was so delighted,” she said of her grandson. “He didn’t have to go back to school.”
Although Mrs. Mildram said her home lost power, she was able to close off the room with a fireplace and keep everyone warm. While 2 feet of snow had blown onto her screened-in porch, the trio had plenty of wood and enough food, she said.
Because she lived a block from Signal Mountain Golf & Country Club, she took her grandson to sled and couldn’t help hopping on for a ride.
“It was too tantalizing,” Mrs. Mildram said.
She said Signal Mountain officials did a good job of clearing the main roads, so it didn’t too long to get out again.
And although the snow was the area’s biggest, it certainly wasn’t the biggest Mrs. Mildram had seen.
“I’m originally from Oregon,” she said, “and I grew up at the foot of the Cascade Mountains.”
Shortly after 1 a.m. on March 29, 1997, a tornado briefly touched down in Lookout Valley before hopscotching through East Brainerd and finally lifting for good in Collegedale.
In its wake, 50 houses and 18 condominiums were destroyed and another 600 houses and four apartment complexes were damaged.
The twister, ranked an F3 on the Fujita intensity scale, did $45 million in property damage. Although no one was killed, 44 people were injured, including three seriously.
Sara Jo Hudson was in Atlanta when the tornado plowed through her neighborhood, but her home on Verona Drive couldn’t escape it.
It blew out the windows, jarred the brick siding and sent limbs into her bedroom and breakfast room.
Unaware of the damage, Mrs. Hudson’s son came by the next morning to check on her dog and cat. Her neighbor, who worried when Mrs. Hudson didn’t answer her door after the storm, was relieved when her son told her she was out of town.
After hurrying home, she was barred from driving down her street, which was covered with loose dirt. So she left her car and walked up to the house.
Had she been home, Mrs. Hudson said, she might have been killed by the huge limb that blew through her bedroom window. The branch in her breakfast room apparently was driven in the wall from above, she said, because it didn’t penetrate the brick on the outside wall.
“It was weird,” she said. “There were all kinds of things like that.”
Within a few days, Mrs. Hudson moved to a town house, where she remained for six months while her house was renovated.
Although her house was re-done, she could not replace her West Highland terrier, who developed an enlarged heart and died.
“It was the trauma of being by himself,” Mrs. Hudson said. “He was never the same again. He was pitiful.”
She said she doesn’t dwell on the tragedy, though, or what might have occurred had she been home.
“I have so much to be thankful for,” she said. “I think God was taking caring of me.”
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...