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Story of an Illegal Snowstorm

| 11:35 am March 20, 2008 | Comments (37)

We call it illegal because it was not forecast.

All rain, we thought.

We were wrong, we “wuz robbed!”

It had never snowed in Birmingham in April. We assumed the very late snow of March 25, 1924, when Birmingham got 7 inches, would always hold the record of the latest snow on record.

Again, we were wrong.

The night of April 2 and the morning of April 3, 1987 was to be an all rain event. But, lurking in the middle of the night, a low-pressure area grew stronger. It was a large slow-moving low. This gave it time to pull in colder than expected air on its north and NE quadrant. In Birmingham, the temperature at 850 millibars, about 5,000 feet, dropped to 32 or lower, enough to change the rain to snow.

It was a situation where a difference of plus or minus 1 or 2 degrees at the crucial condensation level could mean all rain or all snow.

And, did it snow!

In the early morning hours of April 3, there was thunder and lightning with the snow. Huge, wet flakes. Not the size of frisbees but at least quarter-size or even half-dollar size.

If I remember correctly, it began changing to snow with the official temperature around 41.

The final score:

10 inches accumulation at Valley Head in Dekalb County
9 inches Fort Payne
8 inches Oneonta
7 inches Pinson
6 inches Birmingham and Ashland
4 inches Thorsby, Talladega, Heflin
3 inches Centreville, Tuscaloosa, Greensboro, Livingston, Thomasville
2 inches Bridgeport, Cullman, Haleyville, Camden
1 inch Montgomery, Vernon, Lafayette

While the official snow depth was 6 inches at Birmingham, it was heavier in the higher elevations on the city’s NE side.

Trees were already green.
Azalea bushes and dogwood trees were in full blossom.

It was a strange sight with all the greenery and blossoms bending under the heavy weight of the snow. I took a number of color slides next morning, including azalea and pink dogwood blossoms peeking out from under the snow.

It was a heavy wet snow and the lush foliage caught the snow breaking numerous tree limbs. The cleanup was equal to that of a severe thunderstorm.

A trace of snow was recorded as far south as Atmore and Mobile. The snow tapered off to the NW with only a trace on the ground at places like Moulton and Huntsville.

I worked the 4:00 p.m. to midnight shift at the National Weather Service on West Oxmoor Road that evening, April 2. In those days, we had a voice mail telephone system that we recorded the local forecast on that could take 50 local calls and 8 long distance calls simultaneously. That was my voice on the recording that mentioned only rain. After the rain changed to snow after midnight and toward the pre-dawn hours, the recording was never changed, so people were hearing a rain forecast as the snow was getting deeper and deeper.

I was terribly embarrassed.

When I thought about that again this morning, I am still embarrassed to this day.

We named it the “dogwood snowstorm” for obvious reasons. The snow melted quickly later on April 3, but it was a sight to remember forever.

That large slow-moving low-pressure area moved on to the NE from April 3 through April 5 and produced some unbelievable snow totals. In the Great Smoky Mountain Park, 60 inches accumulated on Newfound Gap. That is the largest single storm snowfall in North Carolina history–at least up until that time. As much as 36 inches was recorded in SE Kentucky. In Charleston, West Virginia, 25 inches easily broke the previous record for the entire month of April which was only 6 inches. Akron, Ohio got 21 inches–an all-time record. I-40 was closed by the snow for the first time since it had opened to traffic 20 years earlier.

Do you remember?

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  1. Jeremy says:

    I remember that snowfall very well. I was almost eleven at the time but I remember waking up and being unbelievably surprised when there was no school and everything was white. I remember calling my cousin in Chicago to wish her a happy birthday and she thought I had lost my mind when I told her we had six inches of snow on the ground. She didn’t believe my because it was well over freezing at the time in ChiTown.

  2. Wade In Jacksonville says:

    i remember this one…i was 8 years old.. for the simple fact of my dad (a bham police officer) shouting out a few four-letter words when i woke him up with my “exciting snow news” that morning :))

  3. Sure I remember, I was living in NE Centerpoint at the time. I was outside building a snowman well after midnight. I went to work later after only a few hours of sleep!

  4. Matt Marshall says:

    Yes. I was at Rickwood Field watching my brother, who pitched for UAB, play a game that night. I can’t remember why they were playing there. Anyway, it started mixing in snow by 9:00 or so, if I remember correctly. We went home before it became all snow.

  5. Roy says:

    Willard Scott said, “It is not an April’s fool joke, but it is snowing to beat the band in Birmingham Alabama this morning” Mike Royer said he would resign if he ever missed a forecast that bad again. The Snow that snuck up on us… The contrasting white beauty with trees, bushes, and flowers shivering in the cold and huddling to stay warm…. Do I remember??? I will never forget!

  6. bruce says:

    I remember practicing softball the day before, how fast the temperature dropped and the way the clouds looked and thinking “rain! man, it looks like snow!” Was still surprised the next day.

  7. Brian K. says:

    J.B.:

    Yes, I remember that snowstorm very well. I was a sophomore at Young Harris College here in GA at the time. I’ll never forget what a shock it was to wake up that Friday morning & find 10 inches of snow on the ground! All of the Atlanta TV stations had been saying that there would only be flurries around Atlanta with maybe a light dusting here in the NE GA mountains. Boy, were there a slew of red faces that day!

  8. misty says:

    Oh yes, I remember. I was in the 8th grade and my Home Economics class was supposed to go to the Spring Home and Garden Show!! Of course, we didn’t even go to school that day because of the snow!

  9. Acid Reign says:

    …..I was on night shift in those days. And even when it started to stick, word from calling corporate officials at home didn’t help. “Everyone must keep working till their relief makes it into work in the morning.” I ended up working from 7:00 PM till 11:00 AM.

    …..As I recall, (driving home dog-tired) that travel conditions were fine by 11:00. There was some slush around, but the stuff on the streets had mostly melted.

  10. Cindy says:

    I think we all remember that snow. I was living with my parents in Cooks Springs at the time, commuting 25 miles every day to my then job. I’d already hit my snooze alarm several times when my Mom poked her head in my door to ask “Are you going to work today?” “I guess so” I replied to which she answered “Look out the window.” After looking out the window I just said “I guess not!” It was a totally surreal experience.

  11. Jenny Ellison says:

    We had a beautiful plum tree in our front yard that was in full bloom. The weight of the snow broke the tree off at the ground. Just thought Mother Nature was a couple of days late with her April Fool’s joke!

  12. David says:

    I remember that snow very well. Before I went to bed that night, I watched the 10:00 news and the weather anchor predicted rain possibly mixed with wet snow. I woke up the next morning and noticed that it was very cool in my apartment. The weight of the snow had knocked out the power and when I looked out the window I absolutely could not believe my eyes.

    Until the Blizzard of 1993, that was the most snow I had ever seen in Birmingham.

    Driving around was not really a problem because the roads were slushy but not really ice covered. By late that afternoon, it seems that most of the snow had melted.

  13. Ray in Woodstock says:

    Yep, I remember it. Worked 12-8AM shift. Woke up at normal time. Looked outside and it was snowing. Called the office, told them I might be a little late. That was a nice 56 mile drive. Checked bridges on the way for icing. JB, I probably talked to your office several times before 8 AM.

  14. Dave says:

    I remember that storm. To my suprise I had 6 inches of wet snow whe I got up. I drove to work from my home in Ensley to Tarrant in my VW Rabbit. We spent most of the day cleaning up broken tree limbs from the weight of the snow breaking them off. School was cancled and by afternoon it was about gone. I got photos somewhere, if i find them I will scan them and send them in.

  15. Lisa says:

    Yes! I remember it well! My oldest son was born on March 25th and we had only been home from the hospital a week or less when that beautiful snow came. I have some great photos of the road we lived on then – and the surrounding woods- covered in beautiful snow. I’ll never forget that wonderful surprise!

    and hey, you weathermen out there – don’t beat yourself up. God likes to play jokes on all of us – I know He got a kick out of your stunned faces that day! : ) He’s in charge and every now and then, we need reminding that we don’t have it ALL under control! And that is ok – because He does.

  16. Debby says:

    Remember it very well!! We referred to it as the April Fools’s snow..I was working at the Eckerd Drugstore in Chalkville at the time. Needless to say I was late to work, the car I was driving would not start it was so cold..I wore a heavy jacket and gloves in the store..it did melt quickly and “Spring” quickly returned, thankfully!

  17. Dennis says:

    I lived up on 77th Way South on the side of Ruffner Mountain. There was a very large tulip polar tree in the yard that was packed full of those pink blossoms. And then the snow. It was just unbelieveable. We moved from Birmingham in June of 1987 and I remember how much I thought I would miss that tulip poplar – and I still do!

  18. Jen says:

    I was only four years old and we were living in Pensacola, FL. I of course was not there for it, but my mom has pictures of me on the beach during that week and I was bundled up………..now I know why! I never understood why I was sooo bundled up in Florida, it was that low that brought the cold temps.

  19. Rebecca says:

    Hey JB:

    That was a “Hook” moment for my husband. He knocked on our neighbor’s door about 6am and said, “Look! It’s snowing!” to which my neighbor promptly replied, “You woke me up for that?!!” and slammed the door in his face.

    How about the snowstorm that wasn’t in 1991 or early 1992? It was predicted all day and never happened.

  20. Sharky (used to be matthew) says:

    i only remember it because i remember someone on another station….think it was mike royer or someone from his station at the time, saying he would quit doing the weather if he ever missed another forecast that poorly…

    Come to think of it, most of the Alabama snows i remember were sneaky snows that either werent predicted at all, or were passed off as nothing….weird.

  21. PatiT says:

    For the life of me I cannot remember this one – at least not to set it apart from other storms. I was working the overnight shift as a DJ then, maybe I slept through it or I had to work an extra shift or something. :( I’ve usually had to work when there has been any significant snow on the ground around here. Worked all through the Blizzard of ’93 – but I was out riding with emergency crews and taking photogrophs so I remember that one.
    Wait a sec . . this may have been the one where the gear shift of my car froze as I was driving home from work up the “mountain” I lived on. That’s what kept me busy that day!

  22. shep says:

    on an earlier blog I reported 9″of snow in Mentone-here is the rest of the story-I was covering another person’s territory in Dekalb County , so , I spent the night at the old cabin in Mentone-got up that morning-called my boss-called our district office in Nashville and got the day off-great fun riding thru Desoto State Park etc.That night I got a call about 8pm—-from my wife wanting to know why I was not back in Gadsden—she was mad–I called everyone but her!!!!when I got home the next morning my supper was still on the dinning room table—I placed it on the floor for my two dogs to enjoy and they did–yes ladies I am an idiot–who loves the snow-we are still married

  23. shep says:

    J.B.-I read an interesting dog owner tidbit today–if you keep a medium sized dog 14 years,the cost is approximatly $16,400.00–cheaper than kids I would assume and well worth it.

  24. Melba says:

    I remember that event like it was yesterday too. I especially remember coming in from work to a forecast that was giving all rain….but a very cold one. It wasn’t long before I heard it raining very hard with thunder& lightning. I then heard something hitting the metal AC case in the window and I thought…what in the world? I looked outside and could not believe it. It was now sleeting, with heavy rain with huge snowflakes. I have pictures in the kids album showing at least 6-8 inches on the ground. We made a nice size snowman. I especially remember the snowballs. They were so heavy I had to have help to lift them onto each other. I have a pic of the snowman with a Christmas tree skirt draped around the shoulders of the snowman that I had crocheted ….it said “Merry Christmas”. Back then I lived on the main road going through Midfield. I had lots of people to slow down & look at it. Even though it was totally unexpected & I had to take a vacation day unexpectedly, it was fun playing in it while it lasted.

  25. Mike Wilhelm says:

    I have been wracking my brain for the last several minutes trying to figure out why I don’t remember this.

    I was in the Brunswick/St. Simon’s Is., GA area for my college internship at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center at the time.

    I sure missed out, didn’t I?

    Melba, I really enjoyed your story!

  26. Snowangel says:

    Umm, yea, I remember….It was my SENIOR prom!!! Everyone was scurrying around at the last minute trying to find some kind of coat to wear over a formal gown!!!!

  27. Rachel says:

    I remember it well. We had to go to school because it was our senior/junior prom. We had snowball fights in the parking lot!! It was so much fun!!

  28. debbie says:

    I remember and now it is a family saying that there has been snow and tornados on my dads birthday, april 3. it is a marker at to when winter is really over for us.

  29. John From Talladega, AL says:

    I remember that snow very well. It happen on my 20th birthday! I’m sure I won’t see that again in my lifetime! It was a very exciting birthday for me!

  30. David says:

    I remember. I was 6 and had the chicken pox and could not play in it. I starred at it though the window till it melted.

  31. Ed Brown says:

    I remember that one. It actually started in Alexandria, AL in the early evening. We were over at a neighbor’s house and he and I had to run to the store for something. The forecast here did say “No significant accumulation.” Randy and I got back form the store and I told my wife that we already had “One and one-half inches of ‘no significant accumulation.’” It was fun and quite pretty.

  32. Chris M. says:

    I remember this one particularly because it was my 16th Birthday and never had snow on my birthday (I mean afterall it was April 3rd!!!) and I remember no mention whatsoever from any weather forecaster the mention of snow. Boy, talk about a surprise! I grew up in Jackson, Alabama and we even had about 2 inches of wet snow on this day. We had a Siberian Husky and boy did he love it! Ah memories of childhood!

  33. Howard says:

    I remember. We had a HS baseball game the day before and it got colder as the game went along. The next day our game was SNOWED out.

  34. Dede says:

    I remember so well making lasagna from scratch that night for a party the next day–and then no party!

  35. [...] “JB had an article on the blog about a week ago on the snow of April 3rd 1987. I was able to find these two photos from that day.” [...]

  36. Robert says:

    I remember it well. My wife Rachel and I got married on March 28, 1987. We went to Gatlinburg on our Honeymoon. It snowed bout 8 inches on Wednesday up there. We headed back home on Thursday night a day early because they were calling for more snow in the mountains. We hadn’t listened to a weather forecast and didn’t have any idea bout rain or snow. We woke up that Friday morning and low and behold 8 inches of snow in Empire. Not many people in Alabama can say they got married in late March and saw 2 snows in the first week of marriage. Fond memories!

  37. Robert Walls says:

    In 1987 I was a teacher at the old Hackneyville High School in Tallapoosa County. I awoke to about six inches of snow on April 3rd and went on to work that morning. My students and I did not get much classwork done that morning because we spent too much time playing in the snow. It melted away by mid-morning though and it was back to the old grind, much to everyone’s disappointment!

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