Thirty years ago this week, a winter storm engulfed Watauga County in snow.
Below are articles from the March 17, 1993, edition of the Watauga Democrat — the first edition of the paper after the “Storm of the Century.”
Blizzard of ‘93 buries county; hundreds stranded
This one was the big one.
A furious winter storm ripped through the eastern United States last weekend, blasting most of North Carolina and leaving Watauga County windblown and under more than 2 feet of snow.
Some parts of the county reported accumulations of more than 3 and 4 feet of the white stuff, with drifts as tall as 14 feet in some places.
Temperatures did not climb out of the teens, and wind chills bounced above and below zero all weekend.
The storm brought almost all activity in the county to a standstill. Roads were closed or left impassable, and drivers were left stranded by huge snow drifts and blinding “whiteouts.”
No deaths were directly attributed to the storm, according to Tim Wilson of the Watauga Ambulance Service. Widespread power outages were reported and several motorists and vacationers were left stranded. Gov. Jim Hunt declared Watauga and 39 other counties as disaster areas. The snow began falling about 2 p.m. Friday and the storm dumped more than 24 inches of snow in about 24 hours.
Watauga County leaders declared a state of emergency at 12:30 p.m. Saturday and later imposed a curfew to keep residents and visitors inside and out of the way of emergency personnel, who battled to keep roads open and power on.
By Monday morning, the 37-hour curfew had been lifted and some activity had resumed normally. Tuesday and Wednesday saw many businesses trying to open their doors and most main roads cleared.
Wataugans in all parts of the county were calling this storm the largest snowfall in recent memory and comparing it to the monster snows of 1960.
Meteorologists agreed, reporting that barometric pressure readings for this storm reached an all-time low. Some were dubbing the winter blast, “The Storm of the Century.”
“Hugo wasn’t this bad,” said Lisa Rash, assistant emergency management coordinator. “It (the snow) was just coming down too hard and too fast. Our hands were tied.”
The Saturday decision to call for a state of emergency was in response to the worsening weathering and the need to keep people out of it,” she said.
“Conditions were too hazardous for people to be out,” Ms. Rash said. “We just felt for people’s safety they did not need to be out.”
Complicating the situation were drivers who tried in vain to reach Boone.
Heavy snow forced drivers on U.S. 421 near Deep Gap to sleep in their cars or to seek shelter at nearby homes. Some made it to Parkway Elementary School to escape the elements.
“People did not adhere to the warnings,” Ms. Rash said. “Once they got out, they didn’t realize how bad it was.
The storm closed U.S. 421 and U.S. 321 Sunday, the main arteries connecting Watauga County to the rest of the state.
By Monday, U.S. 321 was open, but traffic coming into Watauga County on U.S. 421 was still being turned away at the Wilkes County line. U.S. 421 east of Boone was open by Wednesday.
The Boone Police Department fielded more than 3,000 phone calls from residents and from people across the state curious about the weather.
Meanwhile, emergency management authorities worked around the clock, with more than 75 volunteers and the National Guardsmen ferrying people around the county and getting medicine to housebound residents.
Snow closed most industries and businesses Monday and forced the cancellation of classes at Appalachian State University this week.
High winds associated with the storm caused power outages all over the county, with some homes doing without for more than a day.
Maggie Tilley, public information director for the Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation (BREMCO), said that at the storm’s peak, as many as 6,000 customers in Watauga, Caldwell, Ashe, Alleghany, and Wilkes counties were without power.
Long-term outages plagued the Triplett, Aho, Valle Crucis, Stony Fork, and Bethal communities because impassable roads made it impossible to reach the downed lines.
Mrs. Tilley said that BREMCO estimated weekend damages at about $500,000, including damaged power lines, poles and overtime for line workers.
Wataugans coping with storm
Wataugans found the Blizzard of ‘93 rough, but, with each other’s help, bearable.
The storm, which dumped from 2 to 4 feet of snow and left drifts all over Watauga County, trapped people in their homes most of the weekend.
County officials issued a curfew Saturday and spent most of the weekend ferrying fuel and medical supplies to snowbound residents.
Weekend power outages kept many Wataugans huddled indoors around fireplaces and battery-powered radios. Outlying areas also reported problems with cable and phone service.
Weekend travelers were trapped in their cars along U.S. 221 and U.S. 421, and were forced to spend the night sleeping in shifts or running their engines briefly to keep heat. Some sought shelter in nearby homes.
The curfew was finally lifted at 8 a.m. Monday, just in time to remedy even the worst cases of cabin fever. Folks ventured outdoors to an open grocery store, a restaurant, or just to shovel snow.
By Monday morning, downtown Boone had come to life. Pedestrians shared a snow-covered King Street with the occasional car. Area grocery stores filled up with shoppers who had hiked wearing knapsacks.
On country roads, neighbors got reacquainted Monday after years of car-dependent existence.
Many county driveways and secondary roads remained covered by several feet of snow Wednesday. Snowplows worked to open snow-choked roads and parking lots.
Jack Austin, of Vilas, had more than 2 feet of snow at his home. His primary worry throughout the storm was running out of firewood to hear his home.
“We’re making it through,” he said. “It wasn’t horrible.”
The stork almost visited the Beaverdam community during the winter blast.
Beaver Dam First Responders were called to the home of Tom and Jackie Ward when Mrs. Ward went into labor late Sunday.
The responders were able to reach the Ward home by hiking through high snow drifts off the Laurel Creek Road.
“She was in labor,” said Beaver Dam Assistant Chief Kevin Norris. “The contractions were very close. She was pretty serious.”
The first responders were able to call in a state plow to clear the road and got an ambulance to take Mrs. Ward to Watauga Medical center.
She did not deliver and her husband said Monday she had returned home.
The Beaver Dam Fire Department also set up a shelter in its firehouse for residents who were without power or heat.
Other emergency shelters were set up at Hardin Park Elementary School, Laurel Springs Baptist Church and Parkway Elementary School. Some Wataugans opened their homes to stranded motorists.
Forsyth County sent three Special Operations Rescue Teams to set up medical centers in the Beaver Dam, Blowing Rock and Deep Gap areas. These teams included doctors, nurses, and paramedics.
The National Guard unit was activated and helped with delivering supplies to snowbound areas.
Helicopters were brought in later to help with air drops of medical supplies, mostly in the Matney community.
No deaths were blamed directly on the storm here. But an admissions spokeswoman at Watauga Medical Center said the hospital had treated three people who had fallen because of the snow and four cases of hypothermia.
Frank Aldridge of the Foscoe Volunteer Fire Department said people had handled the storm well in that community.
At Beech Mountain, 40 inches of snow and high winds combined to create snow drifts or 8 to 14 feet, trapping people in their homes.
Jay Hefner, Beech Mountain police chief, said bulldozers were brought in to reach people who had been stranded by the snow.
Snow caused the roof of one of David Bower’s Sugar Grove greenhouses to collapse. Still, he feels pretty good.
“We were real lucky,” he said. “Everything is relative. It could always have been worse.”
The weather spoiled the vacations of some High Country visitors.
John and Genia Guerin of Charlotte planned to come up to Watauga County this weekend for some skiing with their four children. Instead, they got trapped.
The family spent the weekend at the Days Inn in Blowing Rock, living off Tostitos and other snack food.
The ordeal left the Guerins disenchanted.
“I know this was a bad storm,” John Guerin said. “But this has been a real big disappointment.”
The Days Inn in Blowing Rock was filled with 300 stranded visitors but only four staff members, said Scott Walker, front desk manager at the hotel.
Guests helped hotel staff with cooking and washing dishes, he said.
The snow delayed the opening date of the Brookside Inn, another Blowing Rock motel.
Guard, choppers help with relief
Watauga County called in the big guns to help with winter storm relief this weekend.
The county mobilized the National guard and later called in a fleet of helicopters to help with the delivery of relief supplies to snowtrapped county residents.
More than 20 members of Boone’s 1451st National Guard unit were activated and helped by delivering everything from medicine to fuel to many elderly county residents.
The unit trucks rumbled where few vehicles could go over the weekend and were still helping with relief Wednesday. Trips were made to almost all areas of Watauga County.
“I don’t know what I’ve done without them,” said Tom Collins, emergency management director. “They’ve done a magnificent job. They were a very valuable resource. They had about the only things that would go out here.”
Lisa Rash, assistant emergency management director, also praised the National Guard for its efforts.
On Monday, county emergency management officials began attacking the storm’s aftermath from the air.
Watauga officials called in six helicopters and their crews to drop medical supplies to outlying and snowbound area of the county. Some of the choppers were provided by the National Guard, while Forest Service and television stations provided others.
Many of the more than 30 air drops were made in the Matney community. The Boone Mall parking lot served as the helicopters’ base.
Some of the choppers flew reconnaissance missions to assess the situation.
One helicopter also searched for a missing family of four in the Stony Fork area. The family was later found in Winston-Salem.
The helicopters planned to continue their missions if weather permitted Wednesday.
Gov. Jim Hunt flew into Boone Monday afternoon to survey the damage and offer the state’s assistance.
“He just wanted to know what we needed,” Collins said, adding that he told the governor the county’s top priority was getting roads open.
Collins also said he told the governor to ask President Bill Clinton to declare storm-ravaged areas disaster areas, which would make them eligible for federal emergency relief monies.
Hunt has declared Watauga County and 39 other N.C. counties disaster areas. As of Wednesday, there had been no word from Washington.
Blowing Rock starts road to recovery
With their shovels set and their boots buckled, Blowing Rock residents began Monday digging themselves out of what many said was the worst winter storm they had seem in the town’s history.
“It’s the worst one I can remember,” Police Chief Owen Tolbert said. “And I’ve been in Blowing Rock all of my life.”
Jerry Burns, a member of Blowing Rock’s Fire Department, agreed. He compared it to the storm of 1960, when Old Man Winter deposited more than 90 inches of snow within six weeks.
“It’s a lot worse, because we got it a lot quicker,” he said.
With the snow beginning Friday about 2 p.m. and continuing throughout the weekend, town officials estimated that Blowing Rock received close to 3 feet of snow, with drifts up to 10 feet in some places.
The winter weather paralyzed the resort town, closing its major roads and stranding motorists in their cars. Several residents also lost power, mostly those in the Mayview, Morningside and Green Hill areas.
Despite the strength of the storm, no accidents with injuries were reported in the town, Tolbert said. Only about four or five accidents occurred at all. Most of the problems were simply motorists stranded in their cars, he said.
A countywide curfew kept most residents indoors during the storm. Tolbert said he had a few people driving in the storm. Although he stopped a few cars and told them to go home, he issued no tickets for violating the curfew.
A fire at a house on Ransom Street kept fire department officials busy Saturday and Sunday. About 2 p.m. Saturday, fire officials responded to the fire, which was inside of the house’s walls, Burns said. It may have started from an electrical short in the dishwasher in the kitchen.
The firemen had to return to the house at about 4:30 a.m. Sunday when a fire that had been smoldering in the walls started to blaze. The fires caused a total of about $1,000 in damage, Burns said.
Heavy winds made it difficult to respond to calls. Town crews helped with this, using snow plows to clear the oaths for emergency vehicles.
The majority of other emergency calls came from elderly people without heat or power or who were low on medication, Burns said.
Tolbert said the police department’s main focus throughout the weekend was finding shelter for those who were stranded and helping anyone who could not get out of their home.
By Monday, officials were still trying to get medication to those who needed it but were able to concentrate more on clearing the town’s roads.
U.S. 321 from Lenoir to Boone reopened Monday and was deemed passable, although Tolbert still cautioned drivers.
“I wouldn’t recommend anyone traveling unless they have to,” he said.
Those with four-wheel drives or chains were able to handle most of the town’s main roads Monday.
During the storm, few businesses remained open. Only the Scotchman and The Variety Store offered residents groceries. By Monday, both were short on supplies.
Nancy Underwood, owner of The Variety Store, said the store had run out of bread, milk, and butter. Renae Annas, assistant manager at the Scotchman, said little was left there, too. No milk, eggs, bread or canned foods were available.
“It’s been unreal,” she said of the crowds at the store. Arriving Monday morning, she found at least 45 people waiting.
Other businesses began to dig their way out of the storm Monday, but the progress was slow for some.
Food Lion on U.S. 321 stayed open until 6 p.m. Monday. Most businesses on Main Street remained closed, as did the banks and the post office.
Blowing Rock town offices were closed, but calls rerouted so that they could be taken. The offices reopened Tuesday. As for town services, such as garbage collection, Town Clerk Judy Burns did not know when things would be back on schedule.
“That’s the least of their worries now,” she said of town officials.
No one else could estimate when the town’s daily operations would be back to normal. Most said it depended on the weather.
“That’s something we’ll have to take one day at a time,” Tolbert said.
When speaking of the storm, most town officials spoke of the problems it had caused. But many others also spoke of a positive point — the town’s unity in surviving the storm.
“The main thing I’ve seen is how the community banded together,” Burns said. “Nobody’s quit. Blowing Rock is taking care of itself.”
Blizzard still hurting businesses in WNC
The Blizzard of ‘93 crippled businesses for many retail stores and restaurants in the Boone area, but other businesses actually benefited from the storm.
At Elizabeth’s, an Italian restaurant located in Greene’s Motel, waitress Sandy Hayner said she was called to work because the motels’ 150 guests needed to eat.
“It was incredible,” she said. “We had all 150 guests for dinner all at the same time. Everyone pitched in by getting their own drinks and passing out silverware.”
Not far away, the Quality Inn was nearly full.
“There were some rooms available for employees and people who couldn’t get out,” said George Ennis, front desk staff.
Ennis said the staff was preparing for more brisk business this weekend, as ski enthusiasts from Charlotte, Greensboro and Piedmont cities drive up to the mountains.
“We hate the fact that people are stranded, but we were glad to do what we can do to put them up for the night,” Ennis said. “We had a real big night on Saturday.”
The blizzard was still taking its toll on merchants in this college town Thursday, but a local economist predicted their troubles would soon melt away along with the 10-foot snowdrifts.
With Appalachian State University out of class until Monday, local businesses stood to lose as much as $400,000 in sales, said App State economics professor Rick Kirkpatrick.
“This storm may turn out to be a mixed blessing,” he said. “While it socked everybody in for a few days, it also will expand the ski season.”
In essence, he said, “We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
“While business is not good now it should pick up again at a time of the year when it’s usually slow for area retailers,” Kirkpatrick said. “In the long run, they should come out ok.”
At Appalachian Tee’s, a T-shirt shop that makes App State official sportswear, owner Karl Smith wasn’t so sure an extended ski season would bring him more sales.
“Most of the skiers don’t come off the slopes to Boone anyway,” he said in his empty store. “It’s just too far and they’re having too much fun spending money at the slopes.”
Patrick Hennessey had no customers in his Wingwings Bar-N-Grill on Thursday, even though he was offering 75 cent draft beer and the NCAA college basketball tournament on the big screen.
Hennessey said he was frustrated because he closed his restaurant during spring break. The storm hit Friday night, just as many of the schools 12,000 students were scheduled to return for classes.
Hennessey spent several hours maneuvering around a 10-foot snowdrift in front of his restaurant so he could open Thursday.
“It’s been pretty slow,” he said.
Businesses in nearby Blowing Rock also were crippled when the area was blanketed by more than two feet of snow.
At the Wild Bird Marketplace, Steve Schulman said business has been terrible since he was able to reopen on Tuesday.
“The only people out right now are either suffering big time from cabin fever or just too weird for words,” he said.
ASU junior Pamela Gaddy was among those venturing out on Boone’s downtown streets Thursday.
“I’m really bored,” she said. “We spent most of the day Sunday jumping from the roof of our apartment into the snowdrifts.”
Snow Heroes – letters from readers
Thanks, Derick Wilson, when words cannot express, when there’s no dollar amount to be set, just the loving kindness and caring of a dear young man and the King!
On the afternoon of March 13, I sat stranded on an isolated road one mile from my home. After numerous attempts to make the run, and after attempts to make the walk, from nowhere appeared Derick and the King.
King, a 2,000 pound gentle workhorse, patiently boarded me upon his broad torso and made his way along the mile-long journey with Derick, the master, at the reigns and walking alongside gasping for breath in subzero temperatures with gusting winds at 40 mph and 3-foot snow drifts on an upgrade that nothing but the King could’ve touched.
Within minutes I was safely at my sister’s home with warm clothes, a hot bowl of soup and thawed feet and hands that (for a moment) I thought were frostbitten.
Anticipation ceased shortly to find that Derick and the King were once again safe at their home.
Thanks to Derick, his mother, Hilda, who sent him to look for me, my loving sister, Janice, who sat intensely waiting, and thanks especially to King, the real Snow Hero!
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