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When Hell Freezes Over: Surviving Extreme Weather in the South

The American South is known for its hot, humid summers and mild winters. Images of swaying palm trees, sunny beaches, and front porch swings come to mind when thinking of states like Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. However, the South has experienced its fair share of extreme and even catastrophic weather events that shatter those idyllic notions. From crippling snowstorms to devastating hurricanes and tornado outbreaks, extreme weather in the Southern states presents unique challenges for residents toughing it out. With climate change loading the dice for more frequent and intense weather, it’s critical to know how to prepare and respond to whatever Mother Nature throws your way if you call the South home.

Snowmageddon in the Sun Belt

Snowmageddon in the Sun Belt

While the South doesn’t usually conjure up images of a winter wonderland, several states in the region have been paralyzed by massive snow and ice storms in recent years. In fact, some Southern cities have even seen more snow in one storm than their Northeastern counterparts see over an entire winter. These highly impactful snow events catch residents off guard both because of their rarity and the lack of resources in municipalities across the Sun Belt to manage winter weather.

A historic blizzard struck much of the deep South in January 2014, dumping over 5 inches of snow across a wide swath from Texas to North Carolina. This storm shut down Atlanta, Georgia for three days, stranding thousands of motorists on impassable highways and interstates. With so much snow and ice accumulating faster than crews could hope to keep up, schools and businesses closed, shelves emptied of bread and milk, and roadways turned to slippery skating rinks. The Snowmageddon of 2014 was an eye-opening experience that prompted many Southern cities to invest in more snow removal equipment, since even a couple of inches of accumulation can bring daily life to a halt.

Just weeks later in February, the South took another frozen beating. An onslaught of back-to-back winter storms pummeled states from Alabama up to Maryland with over a foot of snow in many locations. Roofs caved in under the weight of heavy snow and thousands lost power. In fact, by the end of this series of storms, more than 300,000 people remained without power in Georgia alone. The economic toll was steep as well, estimated at over $1 billion according to Moody’s Analytics.

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With climate change causing wavier jet streams, scientists expect more of these disruptive Southern snows to occur. Cities like Atlanta are trying to adapt by purchasing fleets of snow plows and salt spreaders to avoid another Snowpocalypse meltdown on their highways. Meanwhile, residents would be wise to stock up on emergency supplies and prepare for power outages ahead of the winter season.

Hurricane Hellscape

While snowstorms occasionally make headlines, hurricanes pose the gravest threat when it comes to extreme weather in the Southern states. Sitting adjacent to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, the Southeast region acts as a hurricane magnet. These massive tropical systems have unleashed catastrophic flooding, damaging winds, and tornado outbreaks across the South. With each passing hurricane season, coastal residents hold their breath and brace for potential disaster.

Hurricane Katrina serves as a sobering reminder of the devastation hurricanes render in the South. As a powerful Category 5 storm, Katrina wrecked New Orleans in August 2005 after the city’s poorly designed levee system failed. Most of the metro region flooded, trapping tens of thousands of residents without food, water, or shelter. Over 1,800 people perished in one of the deadliest hurricanes on record. Images of bloated corpses and families stranded on rooftops left an indelible mark and exposed the dire consequences of inadequate hurricane preparedness.

Unfortunately, Katrina was just a harbinger of more devastating hurricanes across Dixie Alley. In 2017, all previous U.S. continental rainfall records were shattered when Hurricane Harvey stalled over Houston, Texas, and dumped over 60 inches of rain. Catastrophic, unprecedented flooding ensued, causing billions in damage. The following year, Hurricane Michael barreled into the Florida panhandle as an unprecedented Category 5 storm—the strongest on record to strike the region—before tearing a path of destruction all the way to Virginia. From power failures to severe crop loss, Michael left lasting impacts.

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Most recently, Hurricane Ida demonstrated the growing risks to the South as climate change intensifies storms. After slamming into Louisiana in 2021 as a hurricane and soaking the Tennessee Valley, Ida reemerged as a tropical storm and brought deadly flooding to the Northeast. Scientists warn that as oceans and atmospheres continue warming, southern coastal regions need to bolster defenses and prepare for higher storm surges or face irreparable loss.

Tornado Trouble

Tornado Trouble

While snowstorms and hurricanes tend to attract the most attention, tornadoes also plague the South each spring during prime severe weather season. States like Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee comprise ground zero for many of the strongest and most devastating twisters. These rotating columns of winds can exceed 200 mph and level entire towns when they touchdown. Due to more wood-frame housing construction, tornado fatalities run higher in the South as well.

Vicious tornado outbreaks often target the region, especially as storms gather intensity passing over the Gulf. One of the worst tornado disasters in history unfolded across the South in April 2011. A raging three-day outbreak saw 360 tornadoes rip through the Heartland and South, including the massive EF5 tornado that struck Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This monstrous twister killed 64 people and damaged or destroyed over 12% of the city. April 2011 set records as one of the most active and deadly tornado months ever recorded.

Just two years later, the South took another direct hit from an EF5 tornado that tore a 45 mile path through Oklahoma. Striking the outskirts of Oklahoma City, this tornado remains one of only two to ever achieve the highest EF5 rating. The historic storm killed 24 people and injured over 200 more. Extensive rebuilding efforts continue years later.

Given shifting weather patterns, tornado risk may be on the move. States like Arkansas and Mississippi now fall inside an expanding Tornado Alley. Twister peak season is also starting earlier. Southern communities need to ramp up preparedness with tools like community storm shelters and tornado warning sirens to reduce the relatively high loss of life.

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Preparing for the Worst

While extreme weather will continue to threaten the South, preparation helps weather the storm and rebound. Here are tips to protect yourself, loved ones, and property:

  • Don’t underestimate winter weather. Even moderate snow and ice can overwhelm Southern cities. Stock up on rock salt, shovels, batteries and non-perishable food. When storms approach, avoid travel.
  • Hurricane-proof your home before hurricane season peaks. Install storm shutters, shatter-resistant windows, and a whole-house surge protector. Trim trees, secure outdoor items, and clear clogged rain gutters and drains.
  • Build an emergency kit with supplies to sustain you and your family for 72 hours without power or access to stores. Make sure to include medications, flashlight, radio, batteries, nonperishable food, and water.
  • Get a NOAA weather radio that will sound alarms for tornado warnings in your area so you can take quick shelter. Also, identify the safest place to ride out a tornado in your home, like a basement or interior first-floor room away from windows.
  • Purchase flood insurance, especially if in a coastal region, to offset financial losses from storm surge or heavy rains. Standard homeowners insurance does not cover flood damage.
  • Sign up for emergency text notifications through local police and fire departments. Monitor forecasts and warnings closely when extreme weather threatens.
  • Have an evacuation plan mapped out in advance if you live in an area prone to hurricane flooding and storm surge. Identify shelters or family/friends inland where you can retreat safely.

By planning ahead and making emergency preparations, you’ll be ready to take on extreme weather in the South. Stay vigilant about the risks and get your home, family, and neighborhood storm ready. Although these extreme events can cause costly damage, preparation will ensure that you weather the storm.

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