The ‘94 storm did not get the attention it deserved in the national media. It was, after all, “The Perfect Storm,” as far as ice is concerned with a couple days of ideal conditions for freezing rain to accumulate on tree limbs and utility lines, ultimately bringing them to their knees.
I recall it starting simply enough. I was watching television while reading and, like many others, had no idea what was about to take place, even when the electricity went off somewhere around 10 p.m. The utility companies would have us up and running again in a matter of minutes or hours, or so I thought. In my case, it turned out to be 10 days while those in rural areas would wait up to six weeks.
I especially remember the sounds and smells of the storm period. The cracking and falling of tree limbs and the snapping of utility poles dominated the first couple days, followed by weeks of the roar of chain saws and the whining of generators. The smell of food was frequently in the air as folks rushed to salvage the contents of idled freezers by cooking on the most readily-available source, outdoor grills.
Travel was treacherous, not only ice on the roads but the constant vigilance for roadside trees that threatened to drop an ice-laden limb on your vehicle any second. Trips to the few businesses that managed to reopen before power was restored were adventures. Just because you rode one street to your destination did not mean you could return the same way as newly-fallen limbs forced detours.
I recall driving down College Street in Cleveland one especially dark night and feeling totally disoriented on a road I knew well. With only headlights for illumination, I kept looking for familiar houses, but none could be seen because the view on both sides was blocked by piles of limbs carted to the edge of the street for eventual pick-up.
I had an almost claustrophobic feeling of driving in a head-high maze, but equally eerie and confusing were the unfamiliar silhouettes of distant structures rising above the horizon and exposed to a night skyline that only days earlier had been blocked by magnificent trees before the ice scalped them of their proud crowns.
Somewhere about the ninth day of the outage, I drove to Jackson to present Delta State University’s request to the legislature for special funds to clean up the damage. My fellow legislative liaisons from the other universities and some legislators scoffed when told we were asking for $1.5 million.
Once we showed them a video of the massive destruction in the Delta and on campus, the scoffing stopped. Due to the meager media coverage, outsiders had no idea what we were up against. They were especially impressed by the images of utility poles that had been snapped into and were dangling from wires like cutout paper dolls. A few days later, the full $1.5 million was approved.
It was a two-day trip and I checked into a Jackson motel an hour or so before dark. I had become so acclimated to living without electricity that several minutes elapsed before I thought to flip the light switch or turn on the television.
Despite the trials and tribulations, many of us recall the 1994 ice storm with a degree of fondness and a measure of pride as we relate individual tales of how we made do without modern conveniences. Some likened the experience to an extended family camping trip without leaving home.
It brought out the best in us in many ways. We became a caring community again, with neighbors checking on each other and sharing what we did have. Family conversations experienced a brief revival because we had no television to watch, nowhere to go and none of the modern distractions to draw us back into our individual little worlds. While waiting in long store check-out lines, we commiserated with strangers who were no longer strangers because of our shared experiences. We became a band of brothers and sisters, if only for a while.
We didn’t even dog the utility companies for the long delay in restoring service. We knew they were doing their best as evidenced by the hundreds of trucks and linemen that were out day and night. They came from throughout the southeast and southwest, leaving their families for long periods of time to accomplish the daunting and dangerous task of literally re-wiring the entire Delta. They became our heroes and saviors, and we showed our thanks by honking our car horns and waving or tying ribbons on our vehicle antennae as symbols of appreciation.
Afterward, we patted ourselves on the back with t-shirts proclaiming “I survived the 1994 Ice Storm.” For all these reasons, the storm and its aftermath will always be remembered by many as a “Best of times, worst of times” scenario.
Leroy Morganti is a retired vice president at Delta State University and former newspaper reporter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org