Satellite image of the 1993 March Superstorm (NOAA)

Twenty years ago today, among the most intense cold season storms of the 20th century began to organize. The storm - which would dump crippling amounts of snow from Florida to Maine - resulted in over 300 fatalities and $9 billion in damages (2012 dollars). Known as the “Superstorm of 1993”, “The Blizzard of ‘93” and “Storm of the Century”, it is ranked as an “extreme” category 5 storm on NOAA’s Regional Snowfall Index (RSI) scale.

The Superstorm got its feet wet in the western Gulf of Mexico and, due to tremendous temperature contrasts at the surface and aloft, rapidly intensified starting March 11.

By the time it reached the central Gulf, the storm’s ferocity drew comparisons to a hurricane, with 100 mph+ winds. As Coast Guard Petty Officer Rob Wyman told the Washington Post (according to Popular Mechanics), “The sea conditions [off Ft. Myers, FL] were absolutely incredible…..It looked like a big washing machine. There were huge waves and spray and hail.”

Ultimately, the horrendous conditions caused the sinking of the 200-ft. freighter, Fantastico, the coral reef-grounding of the 147-ft., candy bar-laden freighter, Miss Beholding, as well as the sinking of many smaller vessels. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued 235 stranded boaters in the Gulf of Mexico, while an 11-foot storm surge hit Florida’s west coast, killing 44.

Conditions were no better on the cold side of the storm where, later in the storm’s evolution, the 1993 cyclone and its trailing cold front stretched from Canada, through Cuba and on to Central America.

Itt was noted (in the Washington Post) that meteorologists at the Birmingham, AL National Weather Service (NWS) office, were astounded at their computer outputs.

“The models must be nuts,” said meteorologist Brian Peters on March 12, as the storm barreled toward his city. “We’re looking at 12 to 18 in. of snow ... there’s just no way. That’s like 50 percent higher than any other previous record.”

The models were amazingly accurate, as Birmingham received 13 in. of snow and temperatures plummeted to a record low of 2 degrees F. Even the Florida panhandle recorded six inches of snow.

As a matter of fact, not only were the models “right on the money” in terms of severity and geographical coverage, but they nailed this storm up to 5-6 days before its expected impact, one of the great NWS success stories of the modern era. See Steve Tracton’s post: The Super-Predictable Superstorm of 1993, from 2009.

Four years ago, when Steve posted the above article, he pointed out that efforts in matching the 1993 “Superstorm” forecasting achievement “have been few and far between,” despite significant computing advances since then. But during the last four years, despite some notable miscues, there have been some dramatic successes in medium-range forecasting.

Unquestionably, the October 2012 Hurricane “Sandy” hybrid storm, which devastated parts of New Jersey, Long Island, and southern New England was the stand-out among these, even though one (the 1993 Superstorm) was a cold-core system and the other (Sandy) a warm-core storm (initially). As with the 1993 Superstorm, Sandy was accurately progged by most models as much as five days in advance, an extremely impressive achievement. The NWS forecasting prowess with the February 2013 New England blizzard wasn’t too shabby either.

Snow accumulations from 1993 March Superstorm

As the snow shield of the ’93 Superstorm progressed northeastward beyond Birmingham, most of the major population centers were enveloped—from Atlanta, Ga. to Portland, Me, although, due to the slightly inland storm track, the axis of heaviest snowfall was over the spine of the Appalachians.

Officially, Atlanta recorded only about 4 inches of snow (about twice its seasonal quota), but the snow was wind-blown and temperatures plummeted into the teens, causing blizzard conditions. (Much more snow was recorded in the Atlanta suburbs.) As noted earlier, there was plenty of advance warning for this storm. Nevertheless, Atlantans, always the optimists, refused to believe that snow and cold were coming, when vivid signs of spring were already appearing everywhere.

To the north and east, conditions deteriorated dramatically, with snowfall amounts increasing from inches to feet. Throughout the Northeast and Canada, there were record or near record snowfall amounts, although the truly historic accumulations were in the mountainous areas: in the city of Latrobe, in southwestern Pennsylvania, snow drifted as high as 10 feet; and Syracuse NY saw three feet on the level.

In general, due to the storm’s track, the biggest cities along I-95 were “spared” with only about 12 inches of snow or less. Even so, there were widespread ravel disruptions: at one point, it may have been the only time that every airport from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Atlanta, Georgia was shut down!

Officially, due to a period of sleet, Reagan National Airport (DCA) tallied only 6.6 inches of snow from the storm, although at Dulles (IAD), where there was little or no sleet, more than 14 inches accumulated. But in some areas, the bigger stories, perhaps, were the all-time low barometer readings and the extreme mid-March cold in the storm’s aftermath.

Additional ’93 Superstorm facts and figures

* Fatalities: More than 300.

* Estimated damages: almost $9 billion in 2012 dollars.

* Number of people affected: about 130 million-- about half the country’s 1993 population.

* Lowest pressure: 28.35 inches (960 mb), worthy of a cat 1 hurricane.

* Greatest official snowfall: 50 inches on Mount Mitchell, NC, with 14-foot drifts.

* More facts from NOAA

1993 storm shares anniversary with 1888 New York City blizzard, 125 years ago

Just 105 years before the great Blizzard of 1993, another great cold-season storm raked the Eastern United States. Also known as “The White Hurricane” and “The Storm of the Century” (of the 1800s), it had all the ingredients of an historic winter storm: white-out conditions, hurricane-force winds, record low barometric pressure, and, on the warm side, a major tornado outbreak.

Although the 1993 and 1888 storms had similarities (intense cold, blizzard conditions), the 1888 storm “bombed out” just south of Long Island, stalled, and in so doing, paralyzed eastern New York State (Troy, New York recorded 55 inches over a 3-day period), including New York City (21 inches), and western New England with snowdrifts as high as 50 feet.

(Kocin and Uccellini)

Due to the storm’s unusual track, which allowed a milder marine layer to cross the New England coastline, the Boston-Portland corridor was spared the worst effects, with Boston receiving less than six inches of slushy snow. The storm was also felt in the Washington area, where it was said that the city was “paralyzed by wind-blown snow and ice that amounted to several inches on March 11th. Apparently, a few inches of snow could do that—even then!

For additional information of the 1993 storm, see Kevin Ambrose’s excellent 15th anniversary post on the storm.