Birmingham Survived the Ice Storm of 1982 and the 1993 “Storm of the Century” but “Elsa” is Different

From an outsider’s point of view the current crisis in Birmingham looks fairly simple. Southerners don’t know how to handle snow, and certainly not ice. Well, that’s true. We don’t carry snow chains and emergency kits in our trunks in case of the bitter cold.

My house in a snowstorm, 1937

My house in a snowstorm, 1937

But, if we have ample warning, we typically overprepare for any weather event, ravaging the bread and milk aisles at the Piggly Wiggly with a tornadic fury. In fact, we’ve heeded the most recent warnings from our trusty weatherman to the point we all felt a little ridiculous when, time and again, the schools closed and nothing happened.

We’ve experienced winter storms before: The January Ice Storm of 1982 left almost a million people without power, twenty dead, hundreds injured and millions of dollars in damage; the super freak snow storm in March 1993, dubbed “The Storm of the Century,” shut down the city for days. That’s when I heard thunder snow, a strange, muffled clap, about the same time the eighty-year old water oak plopped across the boxwoods in the front yard, the tip of its top limbs grazing the house.

This time is different, but no less dramatic, the temperature dropping so fast, within minutes the roads were impassable. Like the princess Elsa in the current Disney movie Frozen: in a flash, we were encased in ice fractals.

I made it home in the nick of time with Clint and Frances in tow. When Clint called and said school was out, I jumped in the car and headed to Altamont perched on top of Red Mountain. In the car slipping on ice, I watched my windshield wipers stick with flecks of ice. I realized then this was serious business, and I didn’t have a clue what to do. Driving up Morningside’s steep curves, my back windshield blanketed in snow, I could feel the window of opportunity closing. I only had a few minutes left to navigate my way safely.

The road in front of my house, circa 1978.

The road in front of my house, circa 1978.

By the time we drove in the driveway and got inside, the road in front of our house was jammed, cars spinning out everywhere. I called the police department. “The city is closed,” the dispatcher informed me. But people are stuck I insisted. “Honey, people are stuck all over the city.”

The forecasters had said there would be only a dusting I tried to explain to my brother Peter who called from California chuckling. Heck, the governor commanded all of the sand trucks and EMA folks go 100 miles south.

Peter wanted to know if my husband Hugo had delivered any babies in this storm like he sort of did twenty years ago. No emergency trips to rush his godchild’s mother to the hospital in his four wheel drive truck. But this Hometown Hero is spending the night at work with a stranded crew after helping one hitchhiker and several damsels in distress. In a strange twist, one of his partner’s sons found his way to our house after walking miles in the dangerous cold to spend the night with us. Along the way, he ate a snack and drank coffee someone had left in their mailbox for people in need.

With emergency crews elsewhere, here in Birmingham, people all over the city ran out of gas or ran out of nerve and abandoned cars in the middle of expressways transformed into frozen parking lots. My mother-in -law sat in her car for six hours and used half a tank of gas, only to travel 12 miles. She was lucky. She found a hotel.

That’s one anecdote out of hundreds of stories we will hear about stranded, cold, powerless people without their medicine, away from their families, caught off guard by this storm.

Southerners may not understand how to deal with snow and ice, but when this crisis is all said and done, the countless stories of kindness and generosity will be a testament to what we do know how to do: extend a helping hand and open heart to a stranger in need when within thirty minutes the world turns to ice.

 

 

 

 

 


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