Originally created 03/13/98

Cold stirs memories of storm



If anyone remembers the Storm of the Century, five years ago today, it's Trey Burdette.

He was backpacking in the North Carolina mountains with several Augusta-area friends the day the worst blizzard in memory struck the Eastern Seaboard, killing dozens and knocking out power for millions of residents between Florida and Maine.

"We were prepared for 10 or 12 inches of snow. We weren't expecting 40 inches and 100 mph winds," Mr. Burdette, a North Augusta nurseryman, recalled Thursday. "When I woke up the next morning, the tent had collapsed and I couldn't move. We were covered with snow."

Familiar with the mountains, the Augusta backpackers spent the next day helping the National Guard rescue stranded hikers and deliver food to people unable to leave their homes.

"We just hadn't experienced anything like that in our lifetime," said John Purvis, state climatologist emeritus at the Southeast Regional Climate Center in Columbia. "It was a horrible day. It was a bare, penetrating cold. I remember we had trouble staying warm in our house."

The Augusta area endured 52 mph winds and snow blown sideways, toppled-over trees and widespread power outages. But as frightful as the storm seemed at the time, the Garden City was spared the death and destruction that paralyzed other parts of the region.

"I call it a freak storm for the South," said Pam Tucker, Augusta-Richmond County emergency management director. "I've lived here all my life, and I never before saw that type of weather."

March is known for its sudden change in weather. The cold spell that has held the South in a tight grip this week is not unusual, especially not after an unseasonably warm winter, Mr. Purvis said.

"Nature has a way of paying its debt," he said of the chilly temperatures we often must endure after a stretch of unusually mild days.

But March 13, 1993, was a different story altogether.

It started as in intense storm in the Gulf of Mexico on March 12. The moist Caribbean air collided with an arctic air mass from Canada that a strong jet stream had pushed farther south than normal. As the storm moved eastward, it picked up speed from the warm ocean waters before striking southeastern United States. It took many by surprise.

At least 25 people died in the blizzard, including 17 Georgians, Mr. Purvis said. Some 14,000 Peach State homes still didn't have power nine days after the storm hit. Thousands couldn't return to work for a week or more. Crops were ruined, and at least 2 million poultry died.

But gardeners in the Aiken-Augusta area can expect more damage to their plants this morning than they did during the Storm of the Century, said Mr. Burdette. The low was expected to be as low as 16.

"In '93, we didn't have the early spring we had with El Nino this year," Mr. Burdette said. "The plants are out earlier now, and the sap is up. Anything's that's exposed is going to suffer."