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20 years ago, Storm of Century dropped record 24.5-inch snowfall on Valley

| Sunday, March 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
A man shovels his car out after a heavy snowfall on March 13, 1993. VND archives
Kids sled ride along Geyer Road in Upper Burrell on March 14, 1993 -- the day after a record snowfall struck the Alle-Kiski Valley. VND archives
Alle-Kiski Valley residents are used to shoveling out their cars after a snowfall. But none had ever had to dig out like they did after 'The Storm of the Century' dumped just over 2 feet on March 13, 1993. VND Archives
A colorized satellite radar image of the East Coast during the 'Storm of the Century' 'snow blizzard' on March 13, 1993. Courtesy of the NASA
A woman and her small daughter were dwarfed by the plowed snow mounds in the JCPenney parking lot along Leechburg Road in Lower Burrell on March 14, 1993, just a day after the Alle-Kiski Valley experienced a 2-foot snowfall. VND archives

Brad James remembers riding around the empty, snow-covered streets of Tarentum in a high-loader, 20 years ago this week.

It was hours after the “Storm of the Century” tore through the Alle-Kiski Valley, and James needed to make sure crews knew where to pile the more than 24.5 inches of snow that had fallen in the previous 24 hours.

“I was hanging out of the cab of the high-loader and telling them where to put the snow,” said James, who was, and remains, assistant chief at Eureka Fire Rescue EMS. “We had to make sure the fire hydrants weren't snowed in.

“It was the only time in my 30 years here I rode through the streets of Tarentum in a high-loader and told guys where to go.”

Wednesday will mark the 20th anniversary of the blizzard, which shut down most of the Northeast.

“The Superstorm of '93 was a strong low pressure system that moved up the East Coast,” said Charlie Woodrum, Pittsburgh meteorologist for the National Weather Service. “It dropped widespread snowfall from Alabama to Maine, and everywhere in between.”

Woodrum said the blizzard, which started about midnight on Saturday, March 13 — a few hours after the Valley High School boys basketball team captured the WPIAL title — dropped the most snowfall the area has ever seen in a 24-hour span.

The Sunday edition of the Valley News Dispatch ran a headline more than 3 inches tall that told the story with a single number: “24.5”.” A ruler ran the length of the left column, with a time line chronicling when the snow fell.

But, it wasn't just the amount of snow that made for rough conditions around the area.

“The wind really ramped up during the afternoon of March 13,” Woodrum said. “From 11 a.m. until 5 a.m. (the next morning), there were maintained gusts of about 40 miles per hour.”

In fact, officials at the time described it as a “snow hurricane.”

Chaos in the Valley

Freeport Council President Don Rehner was a high school history teacher at Riverview Junior/Senior High School in Oakmont. Rehner said he's not the type of person to stock up on supplies when a snowstorm is about to hit, but the 1993 blizzard was different.

“My wife (Diana) called me and said, ‘From what they're saying on the news, you better stop and get some milk and bread on your way home,'” Rehner recalled. “So, I came home (to Freeport) by coming down Coxcomb Hill and stopped at the Phar-Mor in New Kensington.”

Rehner said the store was a wild scene, but he made it home before the flakes started to fall.

In all, three Alle-Kiski Valley residents were killed during the storm, two from heart attacks while shoveling snow. Pennsylvania had the largest storm-related death toll of any state, with 49 of the nation's 219 deaths.

About 150 elementary school wrestlers and their parents were stuck inside Burrell High School that Saturday night. The wrestlers were there for a weekend tournament and were inside when the storm hit its peak early Saturday afternoon. From noon until 6 p.m., 2 or 3 inches of snow fell every hour but one, and 1.5 inches fell then.

Rehner said he remembers schools being closed for at least three days after the storm hit.

The then-brand-new Allegheny Valley Expressway and all other major interstates were closed by Gov. Bob Casey Sr.

More prepared

Eureka's James said his company, along with the rest of the emergency responders in the area, dodged a big bullet during the storm because no major crises occurred.

“Technology has changed a lot in 20 years,” James said. “Snow removal is better now. We're using better tire chains and devices to make our vehicles safer.”

James remembers his station being fully stocked with emergency responders because he didn't want them to face extreme road conditions to get to the station in case of an emergency.

“We do pay more attention to the weather now,” James said. “Natural disasters are a lot more for us to deal with than people realize.

“So, we're always trying to pay attention to what's going on and pay close attention.”

Entire East Coast hit

Woodrum said 1993's “Storm of the Century” is something all meteorological students learn about.

“It's kind of on the extremes of weather systems,” he said. “It's important to understand our extremes.

“One of the more amazing things with the superstorm was how much snowfall it brought to locations in the South.

“Birmingham (Ala.) had 17 inches; Mobile (Ala.) had 3 inches,” he added. “That's unheard of down there.”

Woodrum said the storm spurred strong storm surges along the coast of Florida, and dozens of tornados throughout the South.

“Parts of West Virginia had 30 inches of snow,” he said. “A place in the mountains of Tennessee had 60 inches.

“There's a chance someone could see a storm like this again in their lifetime,” Woodrum said, “but it's not likely.”

The “Storm of the Century” hit just four months after a December storm dumped 15 to 19 inches of snow over the A-K Valley. That monster snowfall had been dubbed the “Storm of the Decade.”

Little did we know what was to come.

R.A. Monti is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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