The Snowstorm of 1973

The Snowstorm of 1973

February 9th marks the 43rd anniversary of the “Snowstorm of the Century” in South Carolina. Many of our readers were not even born then, and the significance of that snow event has been lost but only to linger in the memories of those who experienced it. While I don’t claim to be a meteorologist, I know predicting this record-setting occurrence must have caught many weather prognosticators somewhat by surprise. Predicting storms in 1973 did not have the modern and sophisticated technologies available to them as is utilized in today’s weather forecasting world. Nonetheless, I do know a low pressure system developed in the Gulf of Mexico and combined with cold air and moisture at the surface to produce an intense system that moved to the northeast through portions of Alabama, Georgia and finally into South Carolina. And, what a storm it was!

In my mind this storm was somewhat a reverse of what we experienced in October with the plume of moisture that produced the enormous rainfall from the coast into the midlands. Snow began to fall throughout the State on Friday, February 9th. An especially heavy band of snow moved from Macon into the Augusta area then to Allendale, Barnwell, Bamberg, Orangeburg, Walterboro, Clarendon, Sumter and Florence Counties. And, when the storm reached the midlands and coastal areas of our State, it was in full-bloom and dropped copious amounts of wind-blown snow. While the rest of the State received their share of snowfall, ranging from just a few inches in the upstate to 15 inches in Columbia and 15 inches along the coast, it was the Pee Dee area that received the brunt of the precipitation. Some of the snowfall amounts recorded: Branchville (19 inches), Lake City (17.5 inches), Manning (24 inches), and Sumter (24 inches).

source: http://www.americanwx.com/models/raleighwx/studies/feb73.html

source: http://www.americanwx.com/models/raleighwx/studies/feb73.html

Seemingly, the storm unleashed its full fury along the I-95 corridor, which began to pile up on the roadways very quickly and created drifts in places of over five feet at its height. Tourists from the northern states traveling south to escape the cold and snowy winter, were caught by complete surprise. Instead of pulling off the interstate to seek shelter, many continued their travels to Florida knowing the Highway Department would soon have their “snow plows” clearing the highway. Unfortunately, the Highway Department had no snow plows to perform the clearing process, and thousands of out-of-state travelers became stranded from Florence down to Walterboro.

As conditions worsened and the temperatures dropped into the low 20s, the locals in Sumter and Clarendon Counties became keenly aware that a disaster was unfolding before their eyes. With no dump trucks available and no National Guard trucks yet deployed, farmers began readying their large tractors to go out on the interstate to evacuate the scores of trapped tourists from their now stalled vehicles. Even though the local National Guard members were activated, they experienced significant delays in reaching their armories because travel was at a complete standstill. The communities of Sumter, Turbeville, Manning, Summerton, Santee, Orangeburg, St. George and Walterboro began to “self-deploy” by opening shelters in churches, schools, armories, motels and stores.

This was a time in our history just prior to the emergence of an Emergency Management Agency. Civil Defense was in vogue then and had rarely ever played a major role in coordinating local forces to address such an event. So, fire departments, law enforcement agencies, local farmers, the National Guard and construction workers mobilized to form a massive rescue effort.

Had farmers and other citizens with heavy equipment not come to the aid of the tourists trapped on the interstate, many would have perished. As the hours passed with no help in sight, hundreds of motorists trapped in their vehicles began to exit their vehicles and were seen scaling fences along the highways to trek their way to houses nearby seeking shelter and relief from the cold. Many a homeowner took in folks suffering from near hypothermia and provided hot soup, coffee, and a change of clothes. Many homeowners even allowed these destitute strangers to spend days and nights in their homes, and, as a result, lasting friendships were made giving rise to the meaning of being a good neighbor.

But, there were other emergencies unfolding while evacuations were taking place on the “super slab”. As shelters opened and thousands of people were flocking in, the issues of supplying these evacuees with food, cots, diapers, baby formula, blankets, and essential medications grew to crisis proportions. Grocery stores, pharmacies, and other merchants opened their doors to allow the shelters to take from their stocks until outside resources could be brought in to the impacted communities to provide additional relief. Motels along the interstate and in every community literally accommodated thousands, all the while experiencing the same issues of little to no food or supplies to meet the expanding needs of people.

Once the immediate needs of stranded people were taken care of, the focus for emergency responders turned to local citizens cut off from the outside world. Helicopters from the National Guard and several construction companies took to the air to begin assessing the rural areas of these communities most adversely impacted. These helicopters flew mission after mission into the most remote areas dropping bread and other supplies to those cut off from the outside world. On several occasions, helicopters were loaded with hay and flew out to drop their cargo into pastures for herds of cattle to eat.

In 1973, few people ever considered or even planned for the unusual circumstances that would crop up in shelters that were filled to dangerous capacities. Who would have ever thought that law enforcement officers and National Guard members would be needed to break up fights when tensions flared. Pets that were taken by their traveling owners created unpleasant sanitary conditions. There are even accounts of people slipping out of shelters and breaking into local pharmacies in order to steal narcotics to supply their addictions. This truly was a disaster of major proportions.

In Manning, Sumter, Lake City and other impacted communities life went on with great difficulty for many days. For example, tractors and National Guard 2 ½ ton trucks were used to respond to medical emergencies because ambulances and rescue squad transport vehicles simply could not reach the patients. I vividly remember one such call in Clarendon County where a citizen died of natural causes, and a large National Guard vehicle was pressed into service to make the long trip into a remote area carrying the Coroner and the local funeral director to retrieve the deceased individual. A very young Manning volunteer firefighter, Ed Gamble, helped to coordinate that very challenging removal.

Fighting fires in these snow conditions tested the most seasoned firefighters and required some really creative approaches to even respond to calls for assistance. A personal story may serve to illustrate the hardships experienced by some of the fire departments during this storm. I spent the weekend of February 9th visiting friends near Atlanta and had no clue about the conditions back home in South Carolina. Cell phones had yet to be invented, and I had no way to call home to get an update on conditions. I left the Atlanta area about 9:00 A.M. on Sunday and headed toward Columbia on I-20. Snow was falling fairly heavy, but I-20 was clear until I got to Augusta. When I crossed into South Carolina, I couldn’t believe my eyes…snow was covering the interstate at a depth I had never seen before.

Foolishly, I continued my trip home following in the tracks of a large truck ahead of me. Somehow I made it through Columbia and plotted a route that would take me to Sumter. Creeping along about 25 mph, I again followed a truck to an area near Shaw Air Force Base where my car got stuck in a snow drift. After several attempts to free my Buick LaSabre, it began to take traction, and I made it to the rear parking lot of the Sumter Fire Department, my second home. The shift on duty convinced me that there was no way possible for me to drive home to Manning. So, I retrieved my bunker gear and joined the crew at their main station. All was quiet during the evening hours until about 2:00 A.M. on Monday when an alarm was transmitted for a fire in a two-story residence near the overpass of LaFayette Boulevard. I climbed on the tail-board of their first due engine and pulled up my hip boots in preparation for the cold ride to the fire. As the engine pulled out of the station I can remember seeing a bright red glow in the sky and knew we had a working fire. The engine lumbered through the snow covered streets, which had yet to be plowed, and got stuck about half a block from the burning house.

The officer ordered our crew to begin hand stretching lengths of 2 ½ “ hose to the nearest hydrant for a supply line with the plan for the second due engine crew to hand stretch 2 ½ “ hose to the fire. This plan would have worked had our pump not become frozen in the process. Quickly we connected to the second due engine, and the rest is history. The house was fully involved and threatened exposures on either side. The fire department was successful in saving two structures and no injuries were suffered by the residents or the firefighters.

About mid-morning on Monday, the fire chief learned that a helicopter owned by Sharp Construction Company was flying much needed bread from a bread company in Sumter to Manning and requested that it land in a field besides the fire station to take me to Manning. What an interesting flight! I was literally sitting in the rear of this helicopter surrounded by hundreds of loaves of bread.

When the copter landed near the Manning Armory and its cargo of bread unloaded, I was assigned to a National Guard helicopter to direct its pilot to a remote community where anguished citizens were in need of food. We landed beside a country store where about 20 people were awaiting our arrival. After taking off once again, we dropped several loaves of bread out the door to houses which were inaccessible to the rest of the world.

There are countless untold stories of the “Snowstorm of the Century” just like mine. And, in all of these stories a common thread runs through each depicting compassion of our State’s citizens; sacrifice for strangers; great courage and bravery. Thankfully less than 20 people lost their lives, most succumbing from exposure to the elements. There were many lessons learned from this disaster that laid a foundation for preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation for future events. As I reflect on my experiences during the storm, I am grateful to have been allowed to play a very small role in this record-breaking moment in our State’s history.

 

Acknowledgements:

Mindy Lucas, “S. C.’s Blizzard of 73 Memories Still Vivid”
Jim Gandy (S. C.’s Weatherman), “Remembering The 1973 Snowstorm In South Carolina”

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1Comment
  • Avatar
    Old Coot
    Posted at 10:14h, 09 February Reply

    Thanks for an interesting recollection.

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