The Superstorm of 1993 (Also called the "Storm of the Century") was one of the most intense mid-latitude cyclones ever observed in the Eastern United States. The storm will be remembered for its tremendous snowfall totals from Alabama through Maine, high winds all along the East coast, extreme coastal flooding along the Florida west coast, incredibly low barometric pressures across the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic, and for the unseasonably cold air that followed behind the storm. In terms of human impact the Superstorm of 1993 was more significant than most landfalling hurricanes or tornado outbreaks and ranks among the deadliest and most costly weather events of the 20th century.
Low pressure developed during the day of March 12th along a nearly stationary front lying along the Texas Gulf coast. Upper level conditions were very favorable for intensification of the low as a powerful jet streak developed across the eastern United States on the downwind side of a deep upper level trough. Strong horizontal temperature contrasts near the front across the Gulf Coast states, plus the development of deep thunderstorms over the Gulf also added fuel to the strengthening system. The low rapidly deepened as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico during the afternoon and evening of March 12th and made "landfall" along the Florida Panhandle just after midnight on March 13th. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued over 100 people from ships in distress during the storm.
A squall line of severe thunderstorms extending south of the low impacted Florida during the early morning hours of March 13th. Damaging straight-line winds and 11 confirmed tornadoes were reported across Florida, with substantial thunderstorm wind damage occurring south into Cuba. A study from the Cuban weather service found evidence of wind speeds up to 120 mph from severe thunderstorms spawned there. Strong onshore winds along Florida's west coast created a storm surge with up to 12 feet high in Taylor County with significant damage to property and up to seven fatalities reported.
As the low moved inland across southern Georgia the system encountered cold air across the interior Southeast states; widespread heavy snow and blizzard conditions developed from Alabama and Georgia into the western Carolinas and Virginia. All-time records for snowfall were set in locations from Birmingham and Chattanooga to Asheville, then spreading north through the central Appalachians. By early afternoon on March 13th the central pressure of the low was lower than had been observed with any historic winter storm or hurricane across the interior Southeastern United States. All-time low pressure records were established in Columbia, Charlotte and Greensboro, even beating out the pressures observed just a few years earlier during Hurricane Hugo's visit in September 1989.
Infrared satellite image of the Superstorm at 1800 UTC, March 13, 1993.
Minimum Atmospheric Pressures Observed with the Superstorm
Across the Eastern Carolinas strong wind was the largest impact from the Superstorm. These winds were the result of a powerful pressure gradient out ahead of the rapidly deepening low. Warm, humid air was brought north from Florida on winds gusting to near hurricane force. Widespread damage was the result to homes, trees, and electrical infrastructure in coastal North Carolina. At the same time a blizzard was raging across the western Carolinas with thunder accompanying the whiteout conditions. Some of the peak wind gusts recorded locally include:
These winds created very large waves offshore and a damaging storm surge for south-facing beaches. For the Brunswick County beaches on Oak Island at least 18 homes were destroyed by storm surge and beach erosion. Hundreds of homes were similarly damaged or destroyed on the Outer Banks. The Cape Fear River at downtown Wilmington was backed up by the strong south winds which resulted in considerable tidal flooding on both sides of the river. Along the coast from the Carolinas into Florida large amounts of salt spray were carried inland by the winds and deposited on all exposed surfaces. A light rainfall event several days after the Superstorm saturated this salt layer making it electrically conductive. The result was a second round of power outages as power lines shorted across insulators and tripped breakers. Additional details about this are included in a newspaper article toward the bottom of this webpage.
During the mid to late afternoon hours on March 13th, cold air wrapped in from the west as the low moved north through Raleigh and into northeastern North Carolina. Temperatures in Wilmington plunged through the 40s and into the 30s by sunset and rain changed over to light snow that fell for several hours. East of Interstate 95 snow only amounted to a trace, but much, much heavier amounts of snow fell across the western Carolinas. Some snow totals include:
In addition, a trace of snow was recorded in Augusta, GA; Florence, SC; and Wilmington, NC. Even far to the south a trace of snow was recorded in unlikely places like Tallahassee, FL; Jacksonville, FL; and Fernandina Beach, FL.
The table below contains three-hourly maps from the North American Reanalysis project from Penn State, and twelve-hourly NCEP reanalysis maps. Both show the evolution of the upper level and surface patterns that produced the Superstorm of 1993. Also shown are the daily weather maps from the surface and the 500 mb level.
Watch the squall line cross the Eastern Gulf of Mexico and cross Florida early in the morning on March 13th. Then watch the swirl of clouds move north along the East Coast during the day producing blizzard conditions inland. These images are all from the GOES-7 weather satellite, except for 4 a.m. imagery which is from Meteosat-3. Please note the timestamp on the Meteosat images are incorrect. Times are all Eastern Standard.
Airport Weather Observations
Weather observations from nine local airports are provided for the period from 0000 UTC on March 12 through 2300 UTC on March 14, 1993. Look for large falls in pressure as the storm center crosses overhead, along with strong wind gusts and rapid temperature drops. Even along the coast light snow fell during the evening of March 13, 1993.
The 1993 Superstorm moved across the densely populated eastern portion of the nation, with around 40% of the population of the United States directly affected by the storm. Upwards of 10 million electrical customers lost service due to the storm. An event summary from the National Climatic Data Center records the following death toll by state:
South Carolina: 1
North Carolina: 19
West Virginia: 4
New York: 23
Every major airport on the U.S. East Coast was closed at one point by the storm. The volume of water dropped by the storm was immense: 44,000,000 acre-feet. (enough water to flood 44 million acres of land one foot deep) The volume of snow dropped by the Superstorm was computed at just under 13 cubic miles.
Local Newspaper Reports
The Wilmington Star-News archives are publicly available through the Google News Archive search at http://news.google.com/archivesearch Here are some local stories about the Superstorm of 1993:
National Weather Service Products
The National Climatic Data Center maintains an archive of all forecasts, discussions, warnings, and other products issued by all National Weather Service offices. Here are some interesting ones issued during the Superstorm of 1993. It is worth noting that despite the relatively primitive state of environmental modeling and meteorological data delivery in those days, forecasts and warnings before the storm accurately predicted the very significant event expected to unfold.
State Forecast Discussions from Raleigh and Columbia
Public Zone Forecasts from Raleigh and Columbia
Local Forecast Updates from Charleston and Wilmington
Coastal Waters Forecasts from Raleigh and Columbia
Coastal Flood Warning from Raleigh
High Wind Advisories/Warnings from Raleigh and Columbia
Local Storm Reports Note: no tornadoes were confirmed in the Carolinas during the Superstorm
Public Information Statements
When the Superstorm occurred, the author of this webpage was a high school student living in western North Carolina. This was the first time I had ever experienced an actual blizzard or observed thundersnow. Here are some scans of a “daily weather log” I kept that details the excitement this storm created in a future meteorologist.
During the early 1990s television and radio were the only methods of receiving realtime information about the storm. Here are some of my old photos I took and VCR screen captures from The Weather Channel’s coverage. Also included are two very informative videos of live storm coverage found online.
93-01 Review of the Storm of the Century http://www1.ncdc.noaa.gov/pub/data/techrpts/tr9301/tr9301.pdf
93-03 Water Equivalent vs Rain Gauge Measurements from the March 1993 Blizzard: http://www1.ncdc.noaa.gov/pub/data/techrpts/tr9303/tr9303.pdf
Overview of the 12-14 March 1993 Superstorm: http://weather.gov/media/ilm/Overview_Kocin_Schumacher_Morales_Uccelini.pdf
A Diagnostic Analysis of the Superstorm of March 1993: http://www.atmos.umd.edu/~dalin/huo-zhangyakum-superstorm-m95.pdf
Natural Disaster Survey Report: http://22.214.171.124/os/assessments/pdfs/Superstorm_March-93.pdf
Monthly Weather Review paper discussing model performance: http://www.cimms.ou.edu/~schultz/pubs/dickinsonetal97.PDF
The Superstorm Derecho: http://www.spc.noaa.gov/misc/AbtDerechos/casepages/mar12-131993page.htm
Other links on the Superstorm of '93
NC State Climate Office Storm Summary: http://www.nc-climate.ncsu.edu/climate/winter_wx/database_details.php?event_id=129
NOAA Celebrating 200 Years: http://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/events/storm/welcome.html
Long IR satellite loop of the Storm: http://severewx.atmos.uiuc.edu/10/online.10.3.html
Various Still Satellite Images: http://ww2010.atmos.uiuc.edu/(Gh)/arch/cases/930312/sat/vis.rxml
Hourly Automated Surface Maps of the Superstorm of 1993: http://ww2010.atmos.uiuc.edu/(Gh)/arch/cases/930312/sfc/xcn.rxml