The Perfect Storm: 20th anniversary of the 1994 Ice Storm

By giftshop  |  February 10, 2014  | 

Lights out! Twenty years after the region’s most horrific ice storm, Noel Workman talks to residents who would not soon forget

That day in 1994 dawned like so many February days in the Delta—cold, misty, rainy, gray. Within 24 hours, however, an unexpectedly severe storm coated much of the Delta with ice. Greenville, Cleveland, Clarksdale and smaller nearby towns were paralyzed. Electric power was cut off to more than 570,000 people in the Delta and roads became dangerous obstacle courses.

There had been a buzz for several days before the storm began. “It was ‘the perfect storm,’ recalls Leroy Morganti of Cleveland, “as far as ice is concerned, with a couple days of ideal conditions for freezing rain to accumulate on tree limbs and utility lines, ultimately bringing them to their knees.”

TV anchor Anne Martin told us to take her warning seriously and stock up on emergency supplies before it was too late. Signing off her suppertime newscast she said that this storm would probably start in about 20 minutes. “Ten minutes later Kathryn and I looked out of our kitchen window,” McClain Bowman of Greenville recalls. “Sure enough, icicles were forming everywhere.” By 7:30 the first limb came down and knocked out the Bowman’s power.

Pecan-st“This was the start of a very long, intense storm,” he remembers. “From then on weather news came from a battery-operated transistor radio. It was nine days before we had electricity again. WABG radio kept us up to speed on everything…A cold front had stalled just north of Wayside…It is 31 degrees and pouring rain…Ice was quickly forming on everything…Thunderstorms with heavy rain continued to ride up the stalled front. The weight of the ice was bringing everything down.

“The sound of perfectly healthy, green limbs crashing sounded like glass breaking,” Bowman says. Transformers began exploding, sending out explosive green flashes. Much of the Delta went dark. Bowman and his wife drove out to rescue his parents from their home at Wildwood while it was still possible to get them away from immediate danger of massive tree limbs falling everywhere. The sound of generators and chainsaws filled the air.

Deltans are nothing if not resourceful. No electricity meant that generators were highly prized. Those with enough foresight to have one were saluted by their neighbors. Except in Ruleville.

Although no names were ever attached to the story, the tale of a Ruleville generator owner was widely told and retold. Seems that he was enjoying his do-it-yourself electricity and had become accustomed to the constant diesel motor hum of his generator. Awakened in the middle of the night, something seemed amiss. The hum of the motor sounded a bit different, but it soon lulled him back to sleep.

It was the next morning before he realized that his prized generator had been stolen and the enterprising thief had cranked up his lawn mower in its stead.

 

In the days following the storm, people rushed around town gathering supplies before dark—remember, no street lights or traffic signals—and the streets were deserted by dusk, with candles in the windows of homes for lighting.

Despite all of the tales of pioneers studying by firelight, I soon learned that candlepower just wasn’t going to get it. Fortunately, we lived a block from King’s Daughters Hospital with emergency generators lighting its waiting room. We spent our evenings there reading after trying to bed down at nightfall. That strategy created the problem of my awakening eight hours later. Two or three a.m. isn’t the best time to be finished sleeping. A number of our neighbors checked themselves into King Daughter’s rather than battle the cold and darkness.

Greenville’s Sunflower Food Store had a line waiting to get in, three at a time, into the dark store with no electricity for ice, charcoal, water, whatever food was handy and cigarettes. No power meant no lights and no cash registers. Store owners had to trust their customers—and very few merchants were disappointed.

“The discomfort and the stress levels were pretty high,” recalls one Greenville woman, requesting anonymity, even after two decades. “We were all so stressed,” she recalls.

She should know. She made the front page following her arrest for firing a gun to get the attention of laborers whose method of collecting storm-damaged tress was to drag them through (and damage) her trees, which had somehow survived the ice. “It was more than I could take. I ran out in my pajamas and fired the gun in the air to get their attention,” she says.

When City Judge Earl Solomon reminded her that any bullet fired up must come down somewhere. “I know, Judge,” she said. ‘That’s why I fired over the cemetery. Evidently the judge failed to see the irony of the defendant, who lived very close to the Greenville Cemetery. She paid more than $900 in fines.

Morganti especially remembers the sounds and smells of the storm period. “The cracking and falling of tree limbs and the snapping of utility poles dominated the first couple days, followed by weeks of the roar of chain saws and the whining of generators. The smell of food was frequently in the air as folks rushed to salvage the contents of idled freezers by cooking on the most readily-available source, outdoor grills,” he said.

“Food was kept in coolers outside on the porch, and we emptied our freezers and offered food to our neighbors. We quickly learned to live like pioneers,” Bowman remembers. With power out, freezers soon stopped freezing. As food began to thaw, St. James’ Episcopal Church and other Greenville churches hosted huge potlucks for any taker. Across the Delta, the Red Cross opened 27 shelters for 2,719 people and served 34,929 meals. The Salvation Army also had 27 centers and served 118,531 meals.

Shortly before the storm, MP&L had shut off the power to Terry Chandler’s Greenville Seafood Restaurant over a dispute about an electricity bill that one month jumped from the typical $2,300 to $9,000. MP&L wouldn’t let him work out a payment plan so Chandler purchased a generator and was soon back in business.

After the storm hit, he was feeding customers 24/7. Chandler also fed power company crew members from Kansas, Florida and many of other eight states who used a nearby parking lot as their staging area. And he didn’t charge the workers.

MP&L evidently heard about his generosity, revisited the past due problem and turned his power back on. But Chandler never got rid of that generator.

 

Tribbett and other tiny Delta villages were the last of the last to have power restored. Since the ice storm, Rick Smythe loads up with generators whenever bad weather appears for Deltans in Tribbett and other underserved places.

The ever-hospitable Hank Burdine remembers, “My meager helping hand came at the hands of our local bootleggers. I bought cases of Peach Brandy half-pints and tossed ‘em up to the workers in the bucket trucks and on the ground. It was cold!”

Patti and Gene Snipes were in Dallas when the storm was predicted to hit there the next day. “We shortened our stay, and returned to Greenville to avoid being stuck in Texas,” Patti says. “Little did we know, that it would have been the least of our worries. “Freezing rain was right behind us all the way, but we outran it. Although the slow rain began to start shortly after we crossed the Greenville Bridge, it felt secure to be home. The trees were beginning to form an ice coating, so Gene bought the last portable generator Sears had.

“As the rain continued through the night, limbs began to fall on the house. Since our Wilzin Park home was surrounded by hundred-year-old oaks, it was akin to bombs being lobbed,” she says.

Wayne Nicholas, managing editor of Cleveland’s Bolivar Commercial, made a similar comparison. “It looks like Mother Nature made a bombing run.” His paper and Greenville’s Delta Democrat-Times were without power and had to use the presses of The Greenwood Commonwealth.

For Betsy Bostic, the sound of the big branches cracking near her South Main Street home in Greenville “seemed like gunfire before falling down in a cascade of tinkling ice. It was a combination of beauty and devastation the following morning when Mike and I finally ventured outside.”

The first day she returned to work at Duo-Fast in Cleveland, she saw that every power line between Greenville and Cleveland was snapped and on the ground. Duo-Fast had water trucked in and gave us a take-home gallon of water every day,” she said.

“We were all looking bedraggled in our sweats and no hairdos or makeup. You could tell as the weeks went by who had power because they would show up for work all clean and dressed. The rest of us were still in our sweats,” she says. “Our power was out for 12 days.”

My boss, Richard Rhodes, didn’t get his back for a month. He turned on his generator for a couple of hours every day so his Ruleville neighbors could do laundry and have a bath.

Patti Snipes met a fleet of Alabama Power & Light trucks. “The most polite and professional men you could ask for,” she says. “They were not, however, very complimentary of the state of the wiring in our area and said that a street over, half of one house was wired to the next-door-neighbor’s meter.

The Snipes hauled 140 truckloads of debris to the dump site at the former Greenville airport. The entire curbs along city streets were piled high with limbs in anticipation of the removal by the contractors.

For a few Delta folks, the ice storm was surprisingly positive. Barthell Joseph III was working and living at his family’s Days Inn in Greenville. “Although we lost power and water, many locals still checked in,” Joseph says. I recall Mayor Frank Self’s announcement that “the water pressure has went [sic] to zero.” We used water from the swimming pool to flush the commodes.

“At the time the motel was struggling financially and some painful decisions were looming,” Joseph says. “The ice storm changed that in an instant. From that moment through May we were occupied 100 percent mainly with utility crews. We were able to leverage those rosy numbers enough to sell the property a few months later. That had been our goal for more than five years. In a real sense, the ice storm was good for my family,” he says.

When electricity returned, folks were thrilled—but there was one thing missing. Greenville’s cable system had also been destroyed, and most people had no television. Bowman owned a video store at the time “and business began booming like never before. The shelves stayed empty for weeks,” he said.

 

Several days after the storm, Morganti presented Delta State University’s request to the legislature for special funds to clean up the damage. “My counterparts from the other universities (and some legislators) scoffed when told we were asking for $1.5 million,” he recalls. “Once we showed them a video of the massive destruction in the Delta and on campus, the scoffing stopped. Due to meager media coverage, outsiders had no idea what we were up against. The folks in Jackson were especially impressed by the images of utility poles that had been snapped in two and were dangling from wires like cutout paper dolls,” he says. A few days later, the full $1.5 million was approved.

“I didn’t realize what that canopy of trees meant to us and to our way of life,” Mary Dale McCormick recalls. “Our community had to go through the stages of grief.”

“That great canopy, all that remained of the trees that covered the Delta until it went to crops, was our crown jewel and it was gone,” Hodding Carter III wrote. “The trees had both shown forth its glory and covering a multitude of man-made sins…and it was gone. Just goes to show once more, 20 years later, that nature is far better at healing itself than is man [kind].”

“It wasn’t like a tornado, but went for miles and miles,” says Mary Dale McCormick. “It was terrifying that night and next. Also terrifying was in the aftermath and sense of isolation. No one in the state or the country seemed to care. Or was even aware. We were devastated.

“That storm didn’t get the attention it deserved in the national media,” says Morganti.

An estimated 26 million trees along streets and highways were destroyed in the 26 north Mississippi counties affected. Half of the state’s pecan crop was lost.

It was the largest, most costly and longest power outage in the 71-year history of Entergy or, more precisely, Mississippi Power & Light. We lost 25,985 power poles, leaving 350,000 people without power for an average of seven days.

All five transmission lines from the MP&L power plant in Cleveland were down, darkening the Delta for miles around. Nineteen thousand miles of power lines were replaced by M&PL and the help of 2,500 additional personnel from eight other states. South Central Bell replaced 1,600 poles, calling on 275 phone crew members from eight other states. More than 51,000 SCB customers lost service with the 46,000 dropped lines.

Three months after the storm 13,000 insurance claims for $15 million had been filed. There was also an additional estimated $10 million in costs to homeowners who were not compensated for debris and tree removal.

The stats go on and one. As did the destruction. At $73 million, it was the largest and costliest disaster in MP&L history.

“We had no birds or squirrels for two years, and the trees looked like broccoli. However, the roofs were repaired, fences rebuilt, limbs and leaves gradually reappeared and life went on,” Patti Snipes recalls.

The Delta’s new landscape was marred by scraggly stumps and barren parks and streets with no canopy of shade for many years. All in all, it was an epic ice storm for the record books.

Delta Magazine, January/February 2014

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