Remembering the March 1993 Superstorm

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Storm_of_the_century_satelliteDuring the second week of March 1993, a large and intense storm system was born over the northern Gulf of Mexico, intensified over the southeastern United States, and affected nearly the entire eastern third of North America from Canada to the Caribbean.  This storm system is known as “Storm of the Century”, “Superstorm of March 1993”, and “Blizzard of 1993”.  A variety of severe weather events occurred on March 12–14 in 22 states, Canada, and Cuba, ranging from blizzard conditions, to hurricane-force winds, coastal flooding, tornadoes, and severe thunderstorms.  Marine weather impacts were devastating across the eastern Gulf of Mexico and western North Atlantic Ocean.  In fact, the Superstorm of March 1993 killed more people from drowning than Hurricanes Hugo (1989) and Andrew (1992) combined.  Eleven people drowned in the eastern Gulf of Mexico as strong winds and high seas capsized numerous boats and sank one ship, the Honduran freighter Fantastico, about 50 miles west of Fort Myers Beach.  The marine losses could have been much greater if not for the heroic efforts of the brave men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard.  The Coast Guard deployed more than 100 boats, helicopters, and planes across the Gulf of Mexico, saving scores of lives. Storm impacts in the Florida Keys were delivered in two distinct events.  First, a rapidly moving squall line with embedded severe thunderstorms moved eastward across the Gulf of Mexico during the early morning hours of Saturday, March 13.  Most winter squall lines move at speeds of 20–35 knots.  This particular squall line moved eastward at about 50 knots, and it actually sped up as it swept through the Florida Keys, bringing thunderstorm wind gusts of 50 to 70 knots to the Florida Keys and adjoining coastal waters.  Following the squall line, winds shifted out of the west and freshened to a steady 40–45 knots, with frequent gusts near 50 knots.  This bona fide “strong gale” (Force 9 on the Beaufort Scale) persisted for most of the daylight hours on Saturday, March 13.  The waves generated by such winds were incredible both for their height and steepness.  Although no data buoys existed then around the Florida Keys (as is the case now, sadly), the buoy moored in the middle of the eastern Gulf Loop Current some 200 miles northwest of Dry Tortugas measured wave heights exceeding 30 feet in a fresh, steep swell. The Superstorm of March 1993 caused considerable loss of life and damage across the eastern United States.  However, impacts very well could have been much worse had it not been for the advanced notice provided by weather forecasters, facilitated by the increasing capacity and skill of numerical weather prediction computer models.  Never before had the National Weather Service predicted such a large storm system with as much lead time as it did during the week leading up to the March 1993 Superstorm.  During the two decades since this event, weather forecast accuracy, skill, and lead times have increased further still.  However, the societal impacts which result from a hazardous meteorological event depend on much more than forecasting skill.  Societal impacts depend also on physical infrastructure (building codes, construction, etc.), the quality of both community preparation and response, and most importantly, the awareness, vigilance, and timely actions of each citizen. Remember to be weather-ready and stay safe!


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