Spring often means snow in eastern North Carolina
Spring may officially be a few weeks away, but many in eastern North Carolina also know that March often delivers snow.
Reoccurring atmospheric trends actually make snow storms more likely to occur in March than February, said Corey Davis, applied climatologist with the State Climate Office. “March is a more common time of year to see snow for us than December is,” he said.
Davis found portions of North Carolina had 10 snow and ice storms in March during the last 60 years and eight big snow events in February. That’s due to the nature of snow storms in North Carolina.
“Two things have to happen. We have to have cold air come in from the north because typically our temperatures in winter aren’t cold enough for precipitation to fall in a frozen form,” Davis said. “On the other side we have to some sort of storm, usually a low pressure system, come up from the coast to deliver the precipitation. All throughout the winter we have to have these two ingredients in place to produce snow.”
As warm as it has been lately, snow might be the last thing most residents are thinking with March’s arrival. But a perfect mix of ingredients brought one of the area’s biggest snows ever on March 1-2, 1980.
“We were expecting snow but it was much larger than we thought,” said Mayo Allen, who was Greenville’s public works director from 1972-1992.
“That (storm) in particular, as far as eastern North Carolina goes, that is as close to a perfect set up as you can get for a big snow anytime in the winter, let alone in March,” Davis said.
Temperatures had tipped into the teens and 20s in late February, Davis said. Then a low pressure system moved north from Mexico. It tracked 100 miles offshore resulting in most precipitation falling on the coast instead of the mountains or Piedmont, which usually gets the most snow.
“There were huge liquid precipitation totals. We had more than 2 inches of liquid falling in that event, which is really rare for winter events in North Carolina. Usually for every one inch of liquid we’ll get about 10 inches of snow or so,” Davis said. “When you think about most of our events, it’s five or six inches of snow or so, that’s only a half-inch of liquid. It was pulling in tons and tons of moisture off the Atlantic and pretty much dropping it on the coast of North Carolina.”
Twenty-five inches of snowfall was recorded in Elizabeth City, according to State Climate Office data. Parts of Nash County recorded 20 inches of snow.
Pitt County’s snowfall average was 16 inches, according to state records.
“That event is one of the greatest snow events on record,” Davis said. “It’s something not seen in records before or since.”
“The snow was so deep in one location, near the courthouse there used to be (John) Bigg’s Drugstore, it just got banked in there, we couldn’t even get it out with a motor grader — we had to go in with a front-end loader, scoop it up, put it in a truck and haul it out. That was some snow,” Allen said.
The situation was complicated because temperatures remained at or below freezing for several more days, making it more difficult to clear ice from the streets and roadways.
“We got along good, we just didn’t have the equipment that we have now, we didn’t have the money,” Allen said. What Allen did have was a dedicated, hard-working team.
“When it started snowing we called out the first crew and put sand and salt on the bridge and the intersections,” he said. “Then the snow started coming in fast and deeper so then we put the motor grader to work.”
Allen assigned garbage truck drivers to vehicles with snow plows. Those drivers knew every street in town, he said, and if the plow could get down a road, they would drive through it. The crews worked 12-hour shifts for several days, coming inside only long enough to grab a bowl of beans from a pot that simmered on a heater in the public works garage.
“Those men were good; we had help those days you don’t have now,” Allen said.
Mark Dixon was 20 years old and had just started working full-time with the city recreation and parks department two months earlier when the snow blanketed Greenville.
“I remember I had to get to work,” said Dixon, who 37 years later is a park crew leader with the city. Dixon couldn’t remember if he walked, drove or caught a ride, but when he got to work he immediately went out to clear snow from the paths and sidewalks along Elm Street Park.
“We used shovels and then put some salt down on top of the walkways,” he said. “Everything had to be done by hand.” Today, he uses equipment to spread sand.
What Dixon clearly remembers is the cold, that despite being outfitted in warm socks, steel-toed boots and gloves his feet and hands were cold all day.
“You stay out there long enough they would feel like blocks of ice,” he said. “Once we did what we had to do, we got out of that cold.”
Dixon said he couldn’t believe people were out and about in that weather.
“I thought, ‘Shoot, if I could I would be inside at home,’” Dixon said.
Plenty of people enjoyed the snow, Allen said. Eventually he had crews block First Street because so many people were skiing.
Businessman Parker Overton was managing his family’s Jarvis Street supermarket in 1980. He also had just opened Overton’s Sports Center.
The family always closed the supermarket on Sunday but he’s sure the store was busy on Saturday.
“If you mentioned the word snow the grocery store, especially where we were on Jarvis Street, you would get absolutely flooded and your milk and your bread and stuff like that was the first to go,” Overton said.
“I can tell you my memories of snow weren’t always fun because it meant work,” Overton said. “But snow is when the customers have to come and you have to serve the customer.”
Overton’s mother-in-law was in the New Bern hospital in 1980. His father-in-law called and asked if he and his wife could check on their home in Belvoir.
“I had a 1979 Blazer and my wife Becky and I, Boogie and Faye Norris and Robert Capps the dentist, we all put on snow skis and tied water ski ropes to the trailer hitch and we snow skied all the way out to Belvoir, to Mount Pleasant Church. There was nobody on the road,” Overton said. “Not many people get to ski from Greenville to Belvoir.”
On the way home East Carolina University students along College Hill bombarded them with snowballs. The university had canceled classes, which Overton said was a first.
Martha Jackson, who was a secretary with the College of Nursing, said she never remembered the university closing for a weather event prior to that March snow. She believes it was because most students had gone home for the weekend so university officials saw no need to open on Monday.
Like others, Jackson said she didn’t remember any forecasts about the severity of the storm.
“I remember it started on a Sunday morning and when we got out of church it was a strange-looking snow, it was very fine and it was blowing sideways. The ice under the snow was the biggest problem,” she said. “That’s what made getting around so difficult.”
She remembers her husband digging his way out of the house to go to work.
Martha Jackson’s husband, Doug, was a shift sergeant with the Greenville Police Department at the time. Now retired, Jackson is now the mayor of the town of Winterville.
“Some people had problems getting to and from work. It was that way for everyone because it was such a big snow,” Jackson said.
“Each shift had a lieutenant, and a sergeant that ran the shift. Normally the shift sergeant didn’t investigate accidents but we had so many everybody was investigating accidents,” he said. Cars were slipping off the road and hitting things or sliding in ditches.
“It was a big snow. Some people don’t know how to drive in Greenville even when there’s no snow,” Jackson said. “People should have stayed home but some of them didn’t. They were curious, they wanted to see what was going on.”
While Jackson was investigating car accidents, his wife was entertaining three children at home.
“I had to try and keep those kids in the house,” she said. Doug Jackson laughs. “They were in the middle of it all,” he said.
The family lived in Red Oak subdivision at the time and every kid in the neighborhood was playing in the snow.
“They were dressed warm, they were OK, but I wasn’t too anxious to get out in it,” he said.
The best part of that snow, Jackson said, was his wife made snow cream several times during that week.
Roger Jones had joined Greenville Utilities Commission a year earlier as an electric distribution engineer. Now the director of electric services, Jones said at some point all the snows he’s dealt with in the last 37 years have blurred together.
The March 1980 storm does stand out because there were relatively few disruptions to the city’s electric grid.
“What I remember about that snow is it shut people down as far as travel,” Jones said. “I think I was stuck at home for three days.” If the snow had caused a lot of power outages he would have hitched a ride on a bucket or line truck and been at work.
While Greenville’s utilities suffered little damage in 1980, the system wasn’t as lucky in 1993.
On March 12-14, 1993, North Carolina and all of the eastern United States was struck by “the storm of the century,” a combination of a low pressure system from the Gulf of Mexico colliding with cold air from the west.
Mountain winds reached 101 mph at Flattop Mountain east of Asheville.
A statewide snowfall record was set when 36 inches fell on Mount Mitchell in a 24-hour period and 50 inches fell at that location through the three-day event, Davis said.
“When you think about 36 inches of snow, that’s more snow than Raleigh or Greenville will see in six years and they got it in a 24-hour period,” Davis said. “That shows you how strong that storm was.”
Greenville received a dusting of snow, but wind gusts up to 70 mph snapped utility poles, limbs and trees, leaving thousands without electricity and blocking dozens of roads.
“When you think about a springtime nor’easter, that’s probably the classic example of it. Extremely strong, gusty winds across the coast of North Carolina combined with the precipitation, whether it was rain or a bit of snow,” Davis said.
Eventually 25 western and 15 eastern counties were declared disaster areas by the governor. Pitt County was not one of them but neighboring Beaufort, Greene and Edgecombe counties were.
One thing that often occurs before a March snow is warm weather.
“A lot of times what we see, and we’re seeing it a little bit this year, is if we get into a variable winter pattern we can see things like (a March snow) that happen,” Davis said. “We can go through a week of pretty warm weather and it might flip around the next week and be a little bit cooler.”
Davis noted that 2017 started with a snow event and below freezing temperatures in early January. The day of Davis’ interview, Jan. 25, temperatures were in the high 60s.
One reason eastern North Carolina is seeing variable weather patterns this year is because there isn’t a strong El Niño or La Niña system in the Pacific Ocean controlling the jet streams along the East Coast, Davis said.
Does that mean there will be a March snow?
It depends on whether the state’s weather cools in late February and if the ingredients of a Carolina snow — cold temperatures from the north, wet low pressure systems from the south — come together.
“Historically speaking, say every five to 10 years or so, we get a significant snow event somewhere in the state in March. At this point that’s probably the best we can do in terms of predicting anything,” Davis said.
The last March snow in Pitt County occurred in 2010, when 2-3 inches fell in western and southern Pitt County and up to an inch of snow fell in the east. Between 6-10 inches fell in the Asheville area.
“It’s all going to depend on how those ingredients come together. As anyone who lives here knows it can be really finicky. We’ll have to wait and see, that’s the fun of it,” he said.