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On This Day: The 1993 Storm of the Century

Courtesy of NOAA, NWS, Tim Armstrong

On March 11–14, 1993, a massive storm system bore down on nearly half of the U.S. population. Causing approximately $5.5 billion in damages ($9.2 billion in 2016 dollars), America’s “Storm of the Century,” as it would become known, swept from the Deep South all the way up the East Coast. With a central pressure usually found only in Category 3 hurricanes, the storm spawned tornadoes and left coastal flooding, crippling snow, and bone-chilling cold in its wake. Of the more than 200 weather and climate events with damages exceeding $1 billion since 1980, this storm remains the country’s most costly winter storm to date.

Lots and Lots of Snow

During the height of the storm, snowfall rates of 2–3 inches per hour occurred. New York’s Catskill Mountains along with most of the central and southern Appalachians received at least 2 feet of snow. Wind-driven sleet also fell on parts of the East Coast, with central New Jersey reporting 2.5 inches of sleet on top of 12 inches of snow—creating somewhat of an “ice-cream sandwich” effect. Up to 6 inches of snow even blanketed the Florida Panhandle.

Some particularly notable snowfall totals included:

  • 56 inches at Mount LeConte, Tennessee
  • 50 inches at Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, with 14-foot drifts
  • 44 inches at Snowshoe, West Virginia
  • 43 inches at Syracuse, New York
  • 36 inches at Latrobe, Pennsylvania, with 10-foot drifts

Overall, the storm ranked as Extreme, or a Category 5, on the Regional Snowfall Index for the Northeast, Southeast, and Ohio Valley regions. Covering more than 550,000 square miles and impacting nearly 120 million people in these three regions, the Storm of the Century still ranks as the second worst snowstorm to impact the Northeast, Southeast, and Ohio Valley.

Map of snowfall totals between March 11 and 13 in 1993

Illustrating the storm’s magnitude, the National Weather Service’s Office of Hydrology estimated the storm’s equivalent total volume of water at 44 million acre-feet. That’s comparable to 40 days’ flow on the Mississippi River at New Orleans—enough water to flood nearly the entire state of Missouri 1 foot deep.

More than Snow

In addition to the snow, an estimated 15 tornadoes struck Florida, and 44 deaths were attributed to either the tornadoes or other severe weather in the state. A 12-foot storm surge also occurred in Taylor County, Florida, resulting in at least seven deaths.

The storm’s high winds were also extremely devastating, with at least 15 stations along the East Coast reporting wind gusts of 70 miles per hour or stronger. Dry Tortugas, west of Key West, Florida, recorded a wind gust of 109 miles per hour. And, Mount Washington, New Hampshire, recorded a gust of 144 miles per hour.

The Impacts to Lives and Livelihoods

The storm’s snowfall isolated thousands of people, especially in the Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia mountains. Workers rescued over 200 hikers from the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains. The National Guard was deployed in many areas, and several counties and cities enforced curfews and declared states of emergency. Overall, more than 270 people in 13 different states died because of the storm.

The storm closed nearly all interstate highways from Atlanta northeastward as well as every major airport on the East coast at one time or another—unprecedented at the time. And, from Florida to Maine, nearly 10 million people and businesses lost power. The storm caused the most weather-related flight cancellations in U.S. history.

From Florida northward, the storm battered the entire eastern coastline, and at least 18 homes fell into the sea on Long Island due to the pounding surf. The storm also damaged about 200 homes along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, making them uninhabitable.

The Coast Guard rescued more than 160 people at sea in the Atlantic and in the Gulf of Mexico, where at least one freighter sank. However, another 48 people were reported missing at sea.

Lessons Learned: Be Prepared

Very powerful storms, like the 1993 Storm of the Century, can strike at any time, making it extremely important to analyze them to better prepare for the future. NCEI’s severe weather data and accompanying analyses provide decision makers and constituents with the needed tools to ensure the public is well prepared for future devastating storms. For more information on how you can prepare yourself, your family, and your friends for severe weather, visit Ready.gov.