Christmas Blizzard Blasts Region

Thursday, January 3, 2013
Barry Kilbreth was busy clearing snow from his property along Willow Lane in Piggott Thursday, as the region cleaned up from the Christmas blizzard. (photo courtesy Frank Staples Photography)

For much of the United States, Christmas 2012 will go down in history as the year of the blizzard as the holiday brought with it a massive frontal system. Beginning Christmas Day, and continuing that night and the following day, the storm system affected millions across the south. Luckily, local residents escaped the brunt of the severe weather and damaging ice.

By the end of the week, the system had pushed into the Northeast, resulting in the cancellation of thousands of flights and forcing the closure of roads and businesses. On its heels, the region prepared for the possibility of yet another ice storm as the weekend approached.

The Christmas storm first pushed north through portions of east Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and the panhandle of Florida. According to the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center, in Norman, Okla., some 141 reports were received concerning the squall line Christmas Day. That included 44 preliminary reports of tornados, 95 reports of high winds and three reports of large hail. At last report the storm system had been blamed for at least 15 deaths, including two in Arkansas, with most of those resulting from traffic accidents.

According to the National Weather Service, as the system pushed northward, one of the hardest hit areas was Mobile, Ala., with several fatalities and widespread damage.

As the front pushed into Arkansas Christmas Day, it first brought sleet and freezing rain to the central part of the state. This resulted in thousands of power outages, as tree limbs and utility lines fell victim to the weight of the ice. By Wednesday, Entergy Arkansas was reporting 242,000 customers without power, with all but 10,000 of those in Arkansas. On Thursday morning, they reported that 100,000 of those had been restored, and that work continued.

But, residents of extreme Northeast Arkansas avoided the worst of the conditions, as the precipitation first started as sleet around 5 p.m. Christmas Day. Locally, conditions continued to deteriorate throughout the night, with the sleet and freezing rain changing to heavy snow. High winds were also recorded, giving the storm the official designation as a blizzard.

The frozen precipitation ended around 7 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 26, but only after dropping an 8- to 10-inch blanket of snow on the region. But, unlike other parts of the state that received more ice than snow, the local utility grid stood the test and no problems were reported.

"It was really uneventful for us," noted Piggott Utilities Director Brian Haley. "We had one brief outage that evening, but it was related to a breaker problem and not the weather-- and I don't think those folks were without power for more than 20 minutes to half an hour."

Haley added crews were on stand-by for any problems within the city, or to provide help to Clay County Electric Co-Op if needed. But, according to a spokesperson at the CCEC Corning office there were no reported outages in the county either.

Entergy Arkansas did report outages in the Marmaduke area, along with several locations in Greene, Craighead, Poinsett, Mississippi and surrounding counties. In fact, the Blytheville area was one of the hardest hit in Northeast Arkansas with several thousand without power the first 24 hours following the storm. As of late last week only a few remained without power, mostly in secluded areas of the region. But, thousands were still without power in the central part of the state, and some were expected to remain without electricity until sometime late this week.

The storm prompted Gov. Mike Beebe to order only essential state personnel to work Wednesday and Thursday. State offices re-opened Friday, but on a two-hour delay. Beebe also signed a disaster declaration, meant to ease federal regulations for the transport of utility crews and supplies, as well as poultry and poultry feed.

Locally, the heavy snowfall did cause extra work for municipal, county and state employees. Crews worked throughout the night Tuesday, and rolled out in full force Wednesday morning, clearing highways, streets and roads. City crews also spent countless hours clearing snow from municipal parking areas. As the week drew to a close the majority of the clean-up had been completed.

When it comes to Arkansas history, blizzards don't occupy much space, save the "Great Blizzard of 1899," which was also known as "The Snow King." That blizzard formed in January of that year, blanketing the region in snow and sending temperatures to new record lows across the south. In fact, it was so cold the Port of New Orleans froze.

Thankfully, the Christmas Blizzard of 2012 won't go down in history with that level of notoriety in Northeast Arkansas. But, for residents of Midwest and Northeast it will long be remembered.

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