Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Super Storm

I thought March 8, 1993 was going to be another routine day of weather forecasting here in South Florida. March is one of my favorite months since it often features warm, dry days and cool, clears nights. The heat and oppressive humidity of summer usually are still a few weeks away.

When I arrived at the television station that Monday afternoon and began examining the weather maps I was shocked at what they showed. The long-range computer models were predicting a massive storm would sweep across the eastern United States beginning on Friday, March 12th.

This couldn't be right, I thought. After all, the models were predicting a storm of historic proportions, a storm comparable to a major hurricane. Still, the model data couldn't be ignored so I included a chance of thunderstorms in the long-range forecast.

When I returned to work the next day I was anxious to see what the computer models were saying about the alleged super storm. Back in 1993, computer modeling was in its infancy so it was quite common to see one model run predict a giant storm while the next run of the computers would suggest sunshine was in the forecast.

Yet, on Tuesday March 9, the computer model continued its insistence that a massive storm was coming our way. Wednesday and Thursday's model run remained remarkably consistent convincing me that a major storm was headed for the East Coast.

In 1993, TV stations didn't broadcast 24 hours a day so I had to convince our management that we needed to stay on the air, all night long, to cover this massive storm. I'm glad we did because I had a front row seat to one of the most remarkable events in weather history.

It's been called many names: the Storm of the Century, '93 Superstorm, the No-Name Hurricane, the White Hurricane or the Great Blizzard of '93. Whatever name you choose it will be remembered for its massive size (at its peak it stretched from Canada to Central America), it remarkable intensity (the storm's lowest pressure was 960 mb, comparable to a category 3 hurricane) and its impact (it produced $10 billion in damages).

The storm hit Florida's west coast first producing a squall line of thunderstorms that generated hurricane force wind. I remember talking with viewers who described near continuous lightning as the thunderstorms rolled across the eastern part of the state. Ten tornadoes were reported in
Florida including one that claimed three lives.

After moving across the Sunshine State, the squall line kept on going southeast slamming into Cuba with 100 mph winds. Power was knocked out across the entire island. It was the most powerful storm, other than a hurricane, to ever strike Cuba.

Further north the storm produced a winter nightmare across the eastern seaboard burying cities with several feet of snow and whipping winds of more than 60 mph. One town in Tennessee recorded 60 inches, while more than three feet of snow fell across Pennsylvania and upstate New York.

Birmingham, Alabama picked up an amazing 17 inches of snow with gusty winds producing 6-foot drifts. I remember talking with a reporter from a Birmingham TV station who said, not surprisingly, that the entire city was shut down.

So were most airports from Atlanta to Nova Scotia. It is estimated that the massive storm impacted 130 million Americans, about half the population in 1993.

When I left the TV station around 6 AM on Saturday, March 13, the heavy rains had ended but the gusty winds were still blowing. As I drove home with the sun beginning to rise, I could see some wind damage across our area. Thankfully, it wasn't too significant.

In fact, Palm Beach fared pretty well with the Storm of the Century. For other parts of the United States, it would take several days to full recover from one of the most powerful storms in history.

I often remind young meteorologists that the computer models "are guidance, not Gospel." Yet, 15 years ago this week, the computer models were remarkably accurate in predicting the Storm of the Century.

Posted at 12:12 PM