Snowed in: 20 years ago, region buried in record snow

Snowed in: 20 years ago, region buried in record snow

March 13th, 2013 by Lindsay Burkholder and Kendi Anderson in Local Regional News

As snow continues to fall, Ken Axsiom walks his dog, Peaches, down the middle of Georgia Avenue near the Hamilton County Courthouse Saturday morning, April 13, 1993. "The Blizzard of 1993" blanketed the Chattanooga area with two feet of snow overnight. Staff file photo by John Rawlston

Photo by

BLIZZARD OF '93

Watch Channel 3 today at 6 p.m. for another look back at the "Blizzard of '93," and catch up with one of the "blizzard babies" now finishing his college degree.

METEOROLOGISTS SPLIT ON SNOW DEPTH

Just days after the city was buried under the snow, meteorologists began debating just how much of it there actually was.

A 1993 article stated that National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Pollock thought something was wrong with the official record of 20 inches.

Paul Barys said he was skeptical, too.

"The chances of breaking a record by 8 inches like that is pretty enormous. That's real difficult to do. So I knew it was wrong," he said.

Barys said he called the Weather Service to ask what would be the official record.

The man he spoke with replied uncertainly -- 20 inches.

The next day, Barys called the NWS office again and spoke with Pollock.

Barys said he told Pollock he thought the man had measured wrong.

"He goes, 'I know. Alan made a mistake. ... He took a yard stick and stuck it in a snow drift,'" Barys said.

Barys said that when taking official measurements, meteorologist are expected to take at least three readings and average those numbers out.

"You gotta take a minimum of three and he took one," he said.

Wrong though it is, the record still stands.

"That's what we measured, that's what we put down," he said.

Barys said he doesn't know exactly how much the city received, but he thinks it was close to 15 inches.

"I had estimated, because I figured the Weather Service would get it right," he said, laughing.

- Staff Report

A copy of the Chattanooga News-Free Press from the time of the 1993 blizzard.

Photo by Jay Bailey/Times Free Press.

Anna Daggett grew up in Pikeville, Tenn., and didn't have electricity until 1955, when she was 11 years old. So when the legendary "Blizzard of '93" left her and thousands of others without power, she knew just how to cope.

Daggett spent her five snowed-in days feeding emergency workers, police, firemen, tree cutters, linemen and others who were working to restore order near her Chickamauga, Ga., home.

"It was no big deal to us," Daggett said.

Her daughter Kelle Daggett Bennefield said her mother "kept the woodburning stove fired up and cooked three meals a day for five days."

Bennefield said her parents fed more than 100 men that week, even offering them dry socks and underclothes to change into after hours out in the snow.

"They would go 'strip down' in our bathroom ... and we would take their cold and wet garments and hang them to dry behind the old Suburban Stove," Bennefield said.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the "snowstorm of the century" that left the Daggett family and thousands of others in the Chattanooga area stranded and without power for days.

Forecasts for the record-breaking storm started on March 7. Paul Barys, chief meteorologist for WRCB-TV Channel 3, said one of their computer models predicted a winter storm that would drop 20 to 30 inches of snow on the region.

Barys said he was in a pickle about what to tell viewers.

"I was going, 'I can't say that because the record's 12 [inches]," he recalled.

In the end, he warned that a storm was coming that could blanket Chattanooga with 10 to 15 inches of snow.

Many people found it hard to believe that winter weather that extreme was headed their way. Highs for the week before were in the 60s and 70s.

Even emergency services were skeptical.

"I remember going home from work on Friday and going, 'Man, they predicted this snow and nothing's going to happen,'" said Tony Reavley, director of Hamilton County Emergency Services.

But the proof was in the ... snowdrifts.

Residents awoke Saturday morning to almost a foot and a half of fluffy white snow. And no power.

Reavley said many different agencies worked together in task forces to clear impassable roads, remove downed trees and deal with other obstacles.

Wendell Boring, a former electrician for EPB and current assistant vice president of the operations division, said he was asked to work overnight that Friday in case the storm hit.

"When I agreed to stay that night, I did not realize I was going to be needed to stay for the next nine days," he said.

Boring said he and his crewmembers lived in the dispatch office, going out to work in the day and coming back at night to eat soup and sleep on the floor.

LESSONS LEARNED?

That week has done much to shape current emergency response plans.

Reavley said the blizzard task forces have become integral in emergency responses. He said emergency staffs now realize how important working together with multiple agencies was because "sometimes you really don't know what you're going to be faced with."

But Reavley said the biggest lesson was simply looking ahead.

"Pay attention to predictions ... and try to be prepared not only just for snow but maybe long-term power outages," he said.

Since then, Reavley has been proactive about making sure people know how to prepare for emergency situations long in advance. He says creating a disaster kit is vital.

"On any type of disaster you can be self-sufficient for a little while until assistance can get to you," he said.

Boring said technology has really changed the game.

"Back then we didn't have cell phones like we do today," he said. The dispatch office operated with hand-written pieces of paper taped up with the location of crews on them. Now, dispatch is mobile and every truck has a computer in it.

The quality of trucks has also improved drastically. EPB can now drive and respond in the snow and ice, unlike in '93.

"The problem after the blizzard wasn't that there was so much damage. It was that you couldn't get anywhere," he said.

But for all the technological developments, Reavley said they only help if we use them.

"Technology's only as good we use it," he said. "And if we use it to try to make the world a better place then we're benefiting from that."

Finally, days after the city was buried, power was restored, life resumed a normal routine and people could make a break for civilization. And it wasn't a moment too soon.

Lee Warren said the snowstorm almost prevented his wife's parents from attending their wedding.

"Her folks were snowed in here," he said. "They tried to get out but quickly got the car stuck."

The couple decided to wait it out. They burned through all of their firewood to keep warm, and just as they were choosing which of their furniture was to be sacrificed, they tried the roads again.

"They made it to the airport ... and to the wedding a day ahead of time," Warren said.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@gmail.com.

Contact staff writer Lindsay Burkholder at lburkholder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.