If one were to bring up the year 1994 in the Southeast, most everyone will immediately recall the incredible ice storm that occurred that year. During a 4-day span in February 1994, parts of Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi experienced the worst ice storm of the decade, if not the century. Mississippi was hit the worst, but the people in the surrounding states were also affected heavily and would remember this event for decades to come.
On February 9, 1994, an unusually deep trough with an unusually large cold front was perturbating through the Southeast with the deepest part of the trough extending as far down as southern Texas. Ahead of the front, temperatures were in the lower 70’s Fahrenheit across the delta and into Alabama; however, behind the front, temperatures had plummeted to the mid 30’s in Memphis and even to single digits further behind the frontal boundary. For Memphis, there was a recorded temperature drop of almost 40°F overnight as the front passed through. Moderate rain showers began to develop behind the front as moisture from the Gulf of Mexico rushed in, causing a changeover to wintry precipitation by evening as temperatures behind the front continued to drop.
By 6:00 AM CST on February 10th, the front had pushed as far south as the panhandle of Florida. Meanwhile, freezing rain and sleet continued to fall in the areas behind it with accumulations of up to one inch of pure ice by morning. By this point, the wind became southwesterly across much of the Southeast, causing moisture to accrue over the cold polar air mass. The front began to slow as it progressed through southern Alabama and the panhandle of Florida, which allowed a deep area of low-pressure out of the Gulf of Mexico to collide with the already cool, moist air mass behind the front. This caused even more precipitation to occur over the following day, February 11th, which added another 1-2 inches of freezing rain over Memphis and northwest Mississippi that had already had an inch of frozen precipitation from the days prior. Unfortunately, for many across the area, power lines and trees were heavily affected by the weight of the ice, causing the trees to fall and break, and the power lines to sag, and even worse, topple over. Many in the area were without power for days and cellphones had no service. Over the event, a total of 3-6 inches of ice had accumulated in Mississippi and Tennessee, with the higher amounts accrued in the Mississippi Delta. One power line worker reported ice on a power line that was measured to be one foot in diameter!
On February 12th, wind flow remained southwesterly, but temperatures began to warm up across the area to begin a rather slow thaw. An area of high pressure was approaching and passed through the area on February 13th, which led to clear conditions and an eventual complete melting of all the frozen precipitation.
It is estimated that a total of 741,000 people were without water during the event, and 4,700 miles of power lines were down causing 750,000 people without power across Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas. Most people had power restored within a week, but some were without power for an entire month. Overall, this event caused over $3 billion in damage across the Southeast.
This event is why most people who live in this region take winter weather so seriously. This system over-performed compared to what was forecasted to occur; however, the sophistication of forecasting and forecasting instruments have substantially increased since then so if this event were to happen again, it would be relayed ahead of time so residents can prepare appropriately.
©2020 Meteorologist Ashley Lennard
Want to learn more about weather history? Click here!