Sorry, the Blizzard of ’93 was worse

Beth KinnaneFountain City, Our Town Stories

I wasn’t planning to write about the weather again this week (see story here), but Mother Nature hasn’t accomplished much with “the melt” just yet, so here we are. The impetus is a world of complaining I’ve seen online because TDOT, Knox County and Knoxville haven’t been out clearing and salting roads as if we live in Buffalo, New York.

I know folks are getting cabin fever. I know it’s aggravating to be expected to show up to work when the drive has high potential to turn into the teacup ride at Disney World. And to figure out child care because schools are out. Or you’re tired of everything in your house, and just want some Chick-fil-A. But, seriously, y’all need to chill out.

A sober reminder: as of this writing, seven people have lost their lives this past week because of this weather, six of them due to hypothermia. Were you mostly warm and safe in your home?

It occurred to me last night that there are home-grown, full-fledged adults here half my age that weren’t even around for the Blizzard of 1993 (see story here) or too young to really remember it. Though the thaw out didn’t take near this long, it was worse. What we didn’t have with this storm was mass power outages that took days to correct. I saw posts online about brief issues here or there, but nothing serious. The power stayed on.

That blizzard was a heavy wet snow that weighed down trees and snapped them bringing down power lines all over the place. Tens of thousands of people without power and no way to get it back on quickly. Streets were impassable from the get-go. All of them. We were nearly three days without power at my mom’s house. Though the temperature improved within a couple of days of the storm, that was preceded by a severe drop that helped hold the 18 inches of snow on Black Oak Ridge in place.

There was a parade of utility vehicles up our street. A snow plow had to go first to clear the road to the first downed trees, then the tree crew went to work. Lather, rinse, repeat until all was clear so KUB could come in and restore lines, replace the transformer, etc. This same scenario played out across Knox County, with hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to our power infrastructure. Mail didn’t run, papers weren’t delivered, garbage wasn’t picked up. We were lucky to have a house with two fireplaces as well as a couple of kerosene heaters.

This system that came in last week was an anomaly. The torturous low temperatures that followed it are also an anomaly. It’s not normal. We’re used to a snow blowing in, when it DOES happen (a good one is maybe four to six inches) things are messy for a day or two, school is out for a day or two, then the temperatures go back up and it melts off. The main roads have stayed clear, temperatures don’t completely bottom out, so yeah, city and county crews CAN maybe get out and salt and clear Level 2 and Level 3 streets. But most of the time it’s melted and gone, before they can even get to it.

I’ve come to the conclusion that northerners don’t really drive better in snow, they’re just used to having their streets salted and plowed routinely so it isn’t as treacherous. And that makes sense. It snows a lot more north of here. Hell, it snows more in Lexington, Kentucky, and that’s just two and half hours away. Many of our recent transplants from up north are beside themselves. If I see one more post from someone from Indiana giving advice on how to deal with snow (insert eyeroll emoji) … look, I’ve driven across Indiana, it’s flat as a pancake. You can hike halfway up House Mountain and have more elevation change than there is across that whole state. So hush.

The point is, it makes absolutely zero sense for Knoxville and Knox County to invest in a fleet of snow plows, salt and brine. None. It is a misuse of our tax dollars to overinvest in expensive equipment we rarely have to use. Each has 24 vehicles with snow plow capability. That’s not a lot to cover all these roads. The level 1 roads have to be done first and beyond need for continual maintenance before Level 2 and 3 roads can be attended to.

By the time attention COULD be turned to those streets, they’d been driven over, compacted into ice and frozen solid. The temps were too low for salt to be effective, and it was too late for the plows to do anything but tear the roads up. It sucks, yes, but that’s the reality of it. Welcome to East Tennessee: come for the low taxes, stay for the inconvenience of really bad winter weather. When it actually happens. But word to the wise, if a big snow is predicted, and it’s coming up the valley from the south: prepare.

A few final thoughts: Knox County Schools needs to have remote learning plans in place for events that cause protracted shutdowns. You have the technology, use it.  If you own/manage an apartment complex, you need to hire people to clear your parking lots. Especially with the rents you’re charging these days. Seriously.

If you’re an employer insisting everyone come in when conditions are horrid and officials are asking folks to stay off the roads, make arrangements to pick up your employees who can’t drive out of their neighborhoods. Don’t ask your minimum wage workers with a 10-plus year-old car riding bald tires and liability only to get out on the roads. Go get them. Everyone else able and capable, check on your neighbors and do what you can to help. I’ve seen a lot of the latter, good job. Lastly, thank everyone who’s been working long hours and doing what they can to TRY to get our roads back in order. And stop whining.

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.

(Sources: Knox County Library digital archives)

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