7 tips every Southerner should know before driving in ice or snow
This column by Kat Bergeron originally published Dec. 9, 2007, in the Sun Herald.
"Where the tree tops glisten, and children listen . . . "
Did the Midwest and Northeast snow storms a few days ago make Bing Crosby crawl into your head, crooning "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas . . . ."
A snowy Christmas is as rare on the Mississippi Gulf Coast as finding a usable pearl in a Mississippi Sound oyster. Interpretation: It's not impossible but improbable.
Still, we are allowed our hopes and fantasies. In 112 years, we denizens of the tepid Southland have experienced at least 17 memorable snow or ice storms, something beyond a few gorgeous flakes. "Storm," of course, is a relative term because what would be an overload of cold, wet stuff here would be laughable in Chicago.
Sorry, Bing. Most of these 17 or so winter storms occurred in February, not December.
February weighs in with at least seven, January is next in line and wimpish December and March bring up the rear, though they're not out of the cold weather race.
Historically, Old Man Winter blew his worst cold breath on the Coast on Feb. 16, 1899. According to the old Daily Herald, the forerunner to this newspaper, temps dropped below zero. Spring lambs froze and cow ears fell off. Buzzards were frozen stiff in trees, those that weren't snapping off their limbs.
In 1899, one to six inches of ice in the Sound and on our bays and bayous had people literally walking on water. Speckled trout and red fish went belly-up and entrepreneurs who collected them did a booming fish monger business. As one Ocean Springs writer observed, "Catching the finny tribe was too easy. The fish were so cold they could not swim and floated aimlessly. Some monsters were picked up in a half-frozen state."
That February Herald also reported:
Old Boreas has been driving his fleecy steeds at full speed over mountain tops and through the broad valleys of our land of plenty. For the first time in many decades, he has plunged his icy courses into the warmth of our southern Gulf. To be cold and have no fuel, to be hungry and have no bread, to be sick and find no physician near is a condition which Boreas does not propose to consider."
Gas lines froze and coal bins emptied too quickly. Coastal towns lucky enough to have municipal water and electricity quickly lost those. Canned goods, often stored in unheated pantries, froze and burst.
Meat was too frozen for butchers to cut, and our usual winter gardens keeled over. Citrus, then an important crop, rotted once the thaws came.
Snow and ice were six inches thick for three days, and small ice bergs were reported in the Mississippi River. The local population, unfamiliar with such weather, were ill prepared. Many slipped on the ice and broke bones. Others died of "La Grippe," a common word for flu or pneumonia.
My forays into the Herald microfilm convince me that real winter storms are not Bing Crosby-esque for an unprepared people. I have no desire to experience a remake of the 1899 Coast "blizzard," as it was called. Even our modern houses and wardrobes are not created for such onslaughts.
I actually owned a heavy winter coat from my cub reporter days in Washington, D.C., but Katrina donated it to the mermaids. Still, this winter-deprived Southerner and many of you would welcome a visit from a kinder, gentler cousin of the 1899 blast.
Why? Snow is magical. It's a soul cleanser.
When the Bergeron clan moved here in the early 1960s, we were told that a "decent snow" would fall about every 10 years, which means we're probably due. Our news report on Christmas Day 2004 probably doesn't qualify: "Snowflakes drifted and danced into sight, stopping as quickly as it came, but sleet fell on top for a snow-ball making game."
So, join Bing on a sing.
Snows we have known
Salve your weatherwise curiosity with this list of the most (but not all) memorable snows or ices. We occasionally reprint this earlier microfilm research to prove that anything can happen.
Feb. 16, 1895: "Six inches of snow, but the fun of snowballing turned to horror when residents realized that 60 percent of the livestock had frozen to death when the mercury dropped below Cairo," the newspaper reported.
Feb. 13, 1899: The Coast thermometer plunged to 0 degrees or lower (yet to be bested) and snow accumulated to 6 inches, etc.
Feb. 9, 1933: Mercury dropped to 16, followed by occasional flakes.
Jan. 22, 1935: For the first time since 1899, enough snow fell to make a pretty picture possible. "Temps dropped to 22 degrees. An unusual sight along the shoreline created considerable interest this morning as the warm vapor arising from the water formed a fog-like mist."
Jan. 20, 1940: "Fishing boats returning from outside waters yesterday and today were covered with icicles caused by spray from water." The mercury plunged to 14 and snowflakes fell, but not enough for a snowman.
March 6, 1954: "The first appreciable snowfall since (the mid-1930s) sneaked in at the early hours today and laid a blanket of white beauty over the three Coast counties. You never know. When the king of winter paid his impressive call, the kids had only yesterday been flying kites. Today, they went out to inspect the magic stuff." A solid 2 inches everywhere, higher in drifts, and temperatures hovered around freezing.
Feb. 12, 1958, and Jan. 9, 1962: Spectacular flurries but not much accumulated.
New Year's Eve, 1963: The 20th-century record with 5 inches on the coastline and 12 inches inland. The snow was a cleansing for this year of civil rights strife: "Most residents of the Mississippi Coast today, the last day of an eventful 1963, awoke to the rarity of rarities in this pocket of the Deep South -- a sustained heavy snowfall that blanketed the area in a gleaming white coat. Children and adults fell to the magic."
Jan. 12 and Feb. 10, 1973; Jan. 16 and 30, 1977; Feb. 27, 1984; Feb. 5, 1988: Freezing temperatures, minor accumulations sometimes, enough for mini-snowmen.
Jan. 21, 1985: The Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport recorded a 4-degree temperature. Plumbers across the Coast stayed busy fixing burst water pipes.
Christmas 1989: A freeze dropped the mercury to 10 degrees but brought few flurries. Memories are mostly of frozen pipes and vegetation.
March 12-13, 1993: "A freak winter storm dumped freezing rain and snow on the Coast, making driving hazardous and causing scattered power outages." Nighttime temperatures dropped to 30, but the white dusting didn't last long.
Dec. 18, 1996: An arctic front dusted the Coast with an inch of snow in some spots, but mostly there were just flurries. Several school systems closed, as did Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula.
Christmas 2004: "Snowflakes drifted and danced into sight...."
Winter 2007-08: Stay tuned. Think Bing.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this column was published, the Coast experienced a "Polar Vortex" ice storm in early January 2014.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535-45667.