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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 03/16/2008

The Superstorm of March 13, 1993

By Kevin Ambrose
Ski-sailing by the Washington Monument, March 14, 1993. Washington Weather

I will always remember the weather forecast issued on March 12, 1993 for the storm expected to hit the East Coast the following day. It was the first time I ever heard a blizzard warning issued for Washington, D.C. The forecast for March 13 was quite ominous and included forecast snowfall totals in the range of 12 to 24 inches with warnings about blowing and drifting snow. Ultimately, the snow changed to sleet and rain in DC and points east, but west of Washington experienced a truly historic snowstorm. Below is a summary of the event.

The "Super Storm" of March 13, 1993 will go down in history as one of the largest winter storms on record. Heavy snow and blizzard conditions extended from the Gulf States to New England and from the Ohio Valley to the East Coast. Hurricane force winds battered cities along the Atlantic Coast. Deadly tornadoes were spawned in Florida and tremendous waves and tides occurred from Key West to Maine. The storm was so large that its effects were felt from Cuba, where high winds and rain damaged the sugar crop, to Chicago, where 250 flights at O'Hare International Airport were grounded due to snow squalls. Approximately 270 deaths were attributed to the storm, three times that of Hurricanes Andrew and Hugo combined.

The surface weather map for March 13, 1993. NOAA

The storm originated as a cluster of thunderstorms over Texas on the morning of March 12. As the late winter storm moved over the warm Gulf of Mexico waters, a storm of hurricane proportions began to take shape. Many buoys in the central Gulf recorded wind gusts over 100 mph. A cluster of tornadoes hit Florida, while at the same time an 11-foot tidal surge hit the west coast of Florida during the night of March 12-13. A total of 44 people died in the Sunshine State.

Infrared Satellite Imagery March 12, 1993. NOAA

The highest recorded wind gust associated with the storm occurred on Mount Washington, New Hampshire where the wind was clocked at 144 mph. Dry Tortugas in Florida (west of Key West) recorded a 109-mph wind gust; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina recorded a 90-mph wind gust; and Fire Island, New York recorded an 89-mph wind gust.

Incredible snow totals occurred with the storm, including 50 inches at Mount Mitchell, North Carolina; 43 inches at Syracuse, New York; 30 inches at Beckley, West Virginia; 25 inches at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; 20 inches at Chattanooga, Tennessee; 15 inches at Birmingham, Alabama; and 14 inches at Washington Dulles Airport.

Record low pressures accompanied the storm. All-time record low pressures include 28.38 at White Plains, New York; 28.54 inches at Washington; 28.64 inches at Columbia South Carolina; and 28.86 inches at Tallahassee, Florida.

During the evening of March 12, heavy snow broke out from Alabama through the western Carolinas. The snow spread rapidly northeast, reaching D.C. shortly after midnight. It became moderate-to-heavy during the morning. By then, most of the area had received 4 to 8 inches of snow.

During the late morning, sleet began to mix with the snow, especially from Washington south and east. By early afternoon, many areas experienced rain. By evening, the precipitation had changed back to snow. The snow was accompanied by high winds, with a peak wind gust at National Airport recorded at 47 mph.

The period of mixed precipitation in the Washington area kept accumulations down, with 7 to 12 inches common in D.C. and the close-in suburbs. At National Airport, 6.6 inches of snow fell; at Dulles, 14.1 inches of snow fell; and at BWI, 11.9 inches of snow fell. The heaviest accumulations were generally west of the city, but there were also pockets of 12-plus inches of snow to the southeast and northeast of the District. Generally, the liquid totals for the storm were in the two to three inch range.

By Kevin Ambrose  | March 16, 2008; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Photography  
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It made for an interesting 16th birthday.

Posted by: WFY | March 16, 2008 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Wow - I remember the storm. I was 9 years old, living in Birmingham Alabama, and it was the first time I had ever seen snow!!! Everything was shut down, and we had snow on the ground for a long time. Everyone still talks about the "Snowstorm of 93".

Posted by: BamaGirl | March 16, 2008 2:17 PM | Report abuse

I was a senior in high school just outside Syracuse. It takes a lot to close schools up there. It takes a historic storm to close schools for a week, which is what happened. I remember it was the first time I ever saw the Emergency Broadcast System without the words "this is only a test."

Posted by: Matt | March 16, 2008 4:58 PM | Report abuse

I was living on a farm just outside of Poolesville in Montgomery County. At the time I kept records for the NWS and my total was 28 inches. I cannot understand how Dulles only recorded 12 inches since the airport is less than ten miles from where I lived. Either way I was trapped on the farm for four days and had to walk to the main road where people picked me up to go to work.
I will never forget one incident. A leading citizen of the town, hearing of my plight, called and offered to bulldoze the lane leading into the farm for $500. I haven't talked to him since.

Posted by: JT | March 16, 2008 5:22 PM | Report abuse

I still remember this storm. I was 11, and we were out of school for a week. It was the storm that first got me interested in snow and the weather.

Those were the days.

Posted by: hobbes | March 16, 2008 5:39 PM | Report abuse

I remember this storm very well. I was shocked to hear just a few days before this talk about a major winter storm and paid no attention as I knew it would change to a rain cast as is typically the case. There were warnings of power outages due to heavy wet snow and wind. I lived in Centreville, VA at the time and we had a little over a foot. Snow totals were kept down due to a mix of sleet from about 2:00pm - 6:00pm.

CNN had a special called "Storm of the Century" that afternoon with Wolf Blitzer and I reported "live" on the air giving my breakdown of the storm.

For some reason VDOT had a very tough time cleaning the Dulles Toll road and traffic was a mess for a few days. The snow melted rather rapidly due to the strong March sun and warm temps following the storm.

Posted by: Greg | March 16, 2008 5:46 PM | Report abuse

I thought that this was the coolest 10th birthday present ever. Plus, Montgomery County Schools were closed for at least a week, if I remember correctly.

Posted by: Tim | March 16, 2008 6:38 PM | Report abuse

I remember that storm. . driving a bus for Ride-On. . doing the L-8 up/down CT Ave to/from Friendship Heights.

Snowed so much, Ride-On (As well as Metrobus) shut down operations twice that Saturday.

Each time I hit Chevy Chase Circle, heading to Aspen Hill, it was like the snowplow had just been there. I was running within 5 minutes of schedule all day.

Posted by: Redskins Robbie | March 16, 2008 7:13 PM | Report abuse

I was living in Buffalo, and it brought on an ice storm that cut power for a week. It was the only time I remember that we had more than one day off at a time.

It pales in comparison to the Buffalo storm of '01, though. We got 80 inches of snow in a week - that's not an exaggeration.

Posted by: Liz | March 16, 2008 7:24 PM | Report abuse

I was going to Syracuse at the time but I had scraped everything I had to go to Jamaica for Spring Break.

We actually got stuck down there because the East Coast was socked in. They shut SU for a day because no one could get back in time for class, the only time that happened during my my four years (and three of the four had 150+ plus inches of snow...). They even had to collapse the Dome.

Posted by: Mike | March 16, 2008 8:11 PM | Report abuse

I was then living in Kingstowne, which was not nearly as well-developed as it is today. The snow outside my house had a really thick crust on it, and my Golden Retriever got more pleasure from running crazily on that ice & snow than he did from most anything for a while....what fun....

Posted by: 22046 | March 16, 2008 8:15 PM | Report abuse

I was in College Park and as I recall we were snowed in for about four days, and there was just about nothing to do except the kinds of stuff young people do when they're in college, and lots of it. It was a fun, fun, time.

Posted by: alphanumerics | March 16, 2008 8:47 PM | Report abuse

A significant aspect of the "Storm of the Century" was that in the sense of the larger-scale circulation it was accurately predicted with considerable confidence as much as 5-6 days in advance - an unprecedented success with such a major event and one not repeated often since. Though some critical smaller scale details were not forecast well even at shorter ranges, especially the extraordinarily rapid intensification and associated severe weather in Florida, confidence in the overall size, intensity and storm track led the NWS to use terms describing the situation as one of "historic proportions" and prompted issuing blizzard warnings several days in advance (a rarity even today). While advances in models and increased computational resources were important, the successful medium range forecasts and confidence therein owed to the exceptional intrinsic predictability of the event, i.e., it was an exceptionally easy situation to forecast. Without getting into the details , this stemmed from the fact that it was a very large-scale storm at the surface and aloft associated with a major change in the so called planetary -scale circulation over the Northern Hemisphere. And, it's the largest-scale waves which are the most predicatable in theroy and practice. No flaping of buterfly wings (i.e., chaos theory), as is the general case, was going to send this storm off track, a fact manifest in the consistency of global model runs and the then newly available NWS global ensemble prediction system.The good news back then was that the early warnings were a tremendous success. The not so good news was that it instilled unrealistic expectations that this level of success was to be the norm. But, we're still a long way from the norm being the "thrill of success" rather than the "agony of defeat".

Posted by: Steve Tracton | March 16, 2008 8:57 PM | Report abuse

I lived in Waldorf MD and ventured out during the sleet period, only to get chased inside as wind gusts turned my neighborhood into a sand-blasting zone. Any bare skin was stinging from the impacts...

Posted by: AC | March 16, 2008 9:12 PM | Report abuse

We were skiing at Killington, VT when it hit and it was awesome! Up there, we got 30 inches of snow, the mountain roads were clear by noon the next morning (Sunday) and those kids had a 2 hour delay Monday morning. The farther south we came, the worse the roads were and we had to spend the night in NJ. When we finally arrived in Springfield the place was an icy mess, there had been 12 inches of snow and the kids were off the entire week of school. We'll always remember the storm of '93!

Posted by: momof3 | March 16, 2008 9:30 PM | Report abuse

My daughter was born in the middle of this one! In fact, the hospital cleared us out early so we didn't get trapped there! FYI: She just turned 15!

Posted by: Steve J. | March 16, 2008 10:13 PM | Report abuse

I remember that the day before the storm the high temp reached 50 degrees.. Around or a bit after midnight, snow started falling in Tysons and everything went downhill from there.. Truly a blizzard!!

Posted by: Anonymous | March 16, 2008 10:37 PM | Report abuse

The week before the storm was my spring break- I ended it early to drive back to school in Rochester, NY to arrive ahead of the storm. It was truly a massive amount of snow. I remember the cold and how strong the wind was after the storm- huge drifts and blowing snow everywhere. Very strange for mid-March, even up there.

Posted by: CM | March 17, 2008 9:13 AM | Report abuse

I've regarded the Superstorm in Arlington as the biggest weather "bust" I've lived through. All we got down here was several hours during the middle of the storm of THE KIND OF WIND-DRIVEN RAIN I SO PASSIONATELY HATE!!! We had to give up about 25 inches of snow that everyone else got. To add insult to injury they did NOT close the Federal Government the following Monday despite 8-12 inches of snow and thunder snow on the tail end of the storm. It stayed cold for a week thereafter. Usually in March we get back to 50 or 60 degrees within 48 hours of a an infrequent major snowfall.

Honestly, there are snowstorms from my experience growing up in Wisconsin that I remember more vividly than the Superstorm. My dad and his father-in-law always talked about the 1940 Armistice Day Blizzard as the worst storm they had ever witnessed. Whether we'll ever see a storm like that "Panhandle Hook" blizzard in D.C. remains to be seen. I guess that the Knickerbocker Storm of 1922 and the Washington-Jefferson snowstorm way back in the 1770's are the closest snowstorms to date that Washington has seen which approach the 1940 Armistice Day Blizzard in ferocity. The storms of 1983, 1996 and 2003 come close but don't quite equal the Armistice Day Blizzard. One further note: I understand that the D.C. area did catch at least the tail end of the great East Coast Blizzard of 1888, but it was not so severe here as in points further north. Anyway, my vote for the worst non-tropical weather event of the 20th Century goes to the Great Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940, not the 1993 Superstorm. I never witnessed the storm as it happened over six years before I was born, but I heard quite a number of eyewitness accounts of that storm as I was growing up in western Wisconsin.

Posted by: El Bombo | March 17, 2008 10:45 AM | Report abuse

I'd had a (13th) birthday party the night before (activities included swimming at an indoor pool) and my friends all slept over. When we woke up, everyone was trapped at my house. None of them had boots or heavy coats, since it was warm the day before, so we didn't even get to enjoy the snow. One of my friends' dads ended up putting chains on his tires and rescuing everyone.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 17, 2008 10:58 AM | Report abuse

We were snowed in for a week in the Shenandoah Valley. Anywhere from 20-30 inches of snow fell with monster snow drifts. Of the storms in 93, 96, 03: Only the 93 storm produced huge snow drifts out here.

Posted by: Winchester | March 17, 2008 2:41 PM | Report abuse

It was my cousin's wedding day. The wedding was in NJ. Needless to say, none of us made it up there. The restaurant held the food and offered her the next day instead. So that is when she got married. Now she is divorced. Maybe Old Man Winter was trying to tell her something.

Posted by: science teacher | March 17, 2008 2:51 PM | Report abuse

I was on the first train that made it north from DC to NYC after the storm. I'd been hired by a non-profit to work behind the scenes at an early UN meeting on global climate change. The mountains of snow on every curb in Manhattan made for heavy irony after the proceedings, not to mention sartorial hardship for the people representing nonprofit groups from warm, vulnerable nations around the world. Many didn't own the right clothes. My job entailed working all night, so I slept late, and all day folks donned my snow boots and heavy coat to venture out in shifts.

Posted by: Sally Murray | March 17, 2008 9:36 PM | Report abuse

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