Forty years ago Saturday, snow began to fall over Augusta.
It was unexpected and, when it finished falling, unrivaled, officially dumping 14 inches of thick, white precipitation.
“It completely locked down the city,” former Police Chief Freddie Lott, a lieutenant at the time, said earlier this week. “People in the South just weren’t prepared for that kind of emergency.”
It was the largest snow to fall in Augusta since 10.5 inches fell Feb. 25-26, 1914.
It all came as a surprise.
The Augusta Chronicle’s published weather forecasts leading up to Feb. 9, 1973, called for windy, clear days with temperatures from the 30s to mid-40s. But then snow started falling that Friday, closing businesses and schools. By day’s end, eight inches had fallen, according to National Weather Service records.
It snowed through night and the next day, Feb. 10, another six inches fell.
In Aiken County, snowfall totaled 18 inches. Other parts of the Southeast saw more than 20.
Lott said the only way the police department got by was by borrowing four-wheel vehicles from civilians and Augusta’s Pontiac and Chevrolet dealers, and buying snow tires.
A tire dealer on Sand Bar Ferry told Lott he had enough snow tires to equip six to eight vehicles.
“We bought all of them,” he said.
For a while that put Augusta police officers at an advantage over other departments, including the state patrol.
Nancy Cisick, then 22, had just moved from Pittsburgh to Augusta to work as a teacher at Gracewood State School and Hospital when the snow that was “a lot even for Pittsburgh standards” came.
She donated her 1965 Chevelle, which was equipped to handle winter weather, to the cause. After a week of plowing through the snow to help get doctors and nurses to work, the car never ran right again, but it was returned with a full tank of gas.
“At 22 it just seemed like the right thing to do,” she said.
Those with tractors did what they could to help. A woman identified as “faithful employee, Dorothy Crowder” in a Feb. 11, 1973, story, drove to her job at the Medical College of Georgia on a tractor. In Aiken County a farmer helped pull out an ambulance after it bogged down while taking a woman in labor to the hospital. The soon-to-be mother made it to the hospital in time, the Chronicle reported.
National guardsmen and Army reserves were called in throughout the Southeast to assist in transporting doctors, nurses, police, telephone and power technicians to work, delivering food and medications to residents and rescuing stranded motorists.
Thousands of motorists were stranded on the interstates after the storm struck.
A May 1973 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the storm resulted in $5 to 50 million in property damage, including snow removal and rescue of stranded people, in Georgia. South Carolina had near $30 million.
Bill Murphey, a state climatologist and chief meteorologist of the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said “a freak combination of a lot of things” had to occur for that amount of snow.
“The bottom line is you needed to have the upper level jet stream and low pressure systems to bomb off the coast to get everything to phase up at the right location in the right timing in order to have that type of snowfall event,” he said Wednesday.
Snowfall is always harder to predict in the Southeast, Murphey said of the lack of notice.
“Even back then forecasts were good and the weather office was really good,” he said. “The lead times were still pretty good for the information they had.”
New computer modules can help forecasters predict extreme weather but nothing can “nail it on the head.” Forecasters aim to give at least 24 hours notice before a snowstorm hits an area.
Pam Tucker, Columbia County’s director of emergency and operations, said she was in 11th grade at Aiken County’s L.B.C. High School when the snowstorm hit.
She recalls playing in the snow and watching the dog disappear into the snow that piled up feet deep near the sides of buildings.
“It was pretty spectacular and beautiful,” she said. “I would sit at night and stare at it for hours. It just kept falling.”
It was the last time she remembers enjoying snow. In her current job, she cringes at news of snowfall.
Murphey said another record-breaking snowfall is not out of the question, but a lot of factors would have to come together.
If a record-breaking snow hit now, Tucker said it would “hands down” be a better situation due to preparedness programs, better meteorological information and the public’s immediate access to weather notifications.
“I try to remember how much fun I had in 1973 and realize that kids growing up now want that too,” Tucker said. “If it happens we’re going to deal with it.”