Just the word “snow” sends a burst of energy through Southerners – the panic for bread and milk and navigating treacherous roadways causes our senses, and sometimes sensibilities to go into overdrive. If you are under age twenty-five or so, you will most likely have to hear some stories about the “big one” that happened in 1993. If you are over twenty-five, you will have your own stories to tell. This is part of mine.
Over thirty years in the radio business, I have seen my fair-share of “snow events” in Chattooga County. If you were old enough to remember, it is inevitable that you will reference the “Blizzard of ’93” in your conversation and minimize the severity of the current conditions, because they just don’t compare to that event. I had broadcast during snow events prior to ’93, but none before – or since – can compare to that year.
I went out of state the day before the big event. Temperatures were spring-like on that March day when we left Georgia, and while forecasters were already beginning to use the “S” word in reference to the impending weather event, a lot of people – myself included – didn’t pay much attention. Then on March 13, 1993 the “Storm of the Century” made its way through Northwest Georgia, dumping Minnesota-like snow on Chattooga County. It was two days before I was able to make it over Monteagle Mountain in Tennessee and back to the promised land.
I will never forget my uncle and I driving over Monteagle around 6 PM that evening and seeing no lights – anywhere. We made it to Chattanooga and were in awe of the amount of snow on the sides of the road and the darkened houses and business coming down Highway 27 through Walker County. I tuned the radio to 950 AM to see if WGTA was on the air. I heard Anthony Gilleland, sounding pretty tired, talking about road conditions in Pennville and power outages in Chattoogaville.
We made it to my uncle’s house in Trion and it was dark. Outside it was dark. All of Trion was dark. I didn’t dare try to make my way up Lookout Mountain to my great-aunt’s house where I lived at the time, so I decided to stay in Trion. My uncle’s phone was out at his house, and since this was long before cell phones, I couldn’t call WGTA, but it didn’t matter. I knew that I would get put to work if I showed up. I never told Anthony Gilleland, but I could have made it down to Bolling Road in Summerville that night and relieved him. (Anthony, if you are reading this ole’ buddy, don’t hold it against me – I knew what was coming.)
The next morning I showed up at the WGTA studios. Anthony was still there. The ash tray was overflowing (yes, they still smoked in the studio back in the day), and there were blankets on the floor and empty food boxes all over the room. Honestly, it smelled more like a locker-room than a radio station in there. Anthony and David had been broadcasting for about forty-eight hours straight. I took my place behind the mic and there I was for about the next thirty-six hours.
It was grueling, but we had a blast. The phone calls from listeners were priceless. The lack of power for TV’s and people being stuck in their homes undoubtedly led to the high-volume of phone calls to the radio station. I remember one elderly woman in the Highland Avenue area of Summerville who called me and said “These people in my neighborhood would starve to death if it wasn’t for me knowing how to cook on my fireplace.” She said people had bringing her food to cook for three days and she had been feeding the neighborhood.
We heard from Commissioner Jim Parker and Sheriff Ralph Kellett. Former Sheriff Gary McConnell had been tapped by Governor Zell Miller to head up GEMA, so Chattooga County had a friend in a good position for 1993. You didn’t have to exaggerate the sense of urgency, and there was no lack of local news. There were reports from Georgia Power and we checked the AP “wire service” during those pre-internet days for news from areas that seemed distant from Chattooga County with most people snow-bound. Chattanooga, Atlanta and even Rome, seemed far away and for a short time, Chattooga County was bound together like we have been few times since.
We have had some pretty serious events in Chattooga County since 1993 that I have covered on the radio. Hurricane Opal in 1995, the ice storms in 1997, the fire at the old Berryton Mill, the tornado that hit downtown Summerville, all were major events in Chattooga County, but none can compare to those couple of weeks in 1993 when Chattooga County was buried in snow and we came together as a community.