By Ken Billett
Bouncing off the snow, the glare is almost blinding. Today is the first blue sky we’ve seen in four days. Every neighbor’s rooftop glistens in the sun’s rays. Icicles — once hardened crystal spikes clinging to our gutters — mercifully dissolve as the morning sun slowly rises from the east. Some snow may melt today, but it’s still cold, mostly below freezing, and will stay that way for the rest of the day.
It’s Friday, February 19, 2021, and the winter weather event of this past week brought a flood of memories and bittersweet emotions. Twenty-seven years ago, my wife, Vicki, and I lived through the infamous Ice Storm 1994.
Lived probably isn’t the right term. Survived is more accurate. And like many Memphians, we have vivid memories of that winter storm along with details lost to time — power outages, iced-over roads, and a Memphis almost completely shut down. A thick layer of ice and sleet coated anything that didn’t move. Then, there was that sound, the constant crack of tree limbs followed by a loud crash as the limbs hit roofs, cars, and the icy ground.
But the ice, sleet, and snow were pretty — to look at, that is. Much like today, our then corner of East Memphis seemed like a winter wonderland. Pretty scenery, but potentially deadly. We had no power, we had no family living nearby to take us in, and all of our friends and neighbors struggled to survive as well.
My flight from Dallas, Texas landed at Memphis International early afternoon on February 11, 1994. Much like this year, Dallas had taken an initial blast of ice and sleet, before the storm moved north and east to slam the Mid-South. I shared a cab with two ESPN guys down from Bristol, Connecticut, who were in town to cover the ATP tennis tournament at the Racquet Club of Memphis.
The since-closed Racquet Club was only a few miles from our old house, a two-bedroom 1950s bungalow in Pigeon Estates. I learned later that the extent of ice damage and power outages had more to do with your location and the age of your neighborhood. While whole swaths of Memphis were without power, other sections of the city and Shelby county, mostly the outlying suburbs, still had power with minimal storm damage.
Still, I couldn’t believe these guys were in town for a tennis tournament and that the old Racquet Club had power. Later on, I reminded myself that these guys were from Connecticut, so our ice event was nothing compared to their winters.
I-240 appeared fairly clear with icy patches here and there, so we made it less than ten miles from the airport to my old neighborhood without incident.
When the cab turned onto my street, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Winter wonderland accurately described what I saw, and Memphians repeated that phrase again and again in the days and weeks following the ’94 ice storm.
For a guy who grew up in Tampa, Florida, winter wonderland was an apt description. Ice coated everything and shimmered in the partial sunshine. I remember it looked beautiful, absolutely beautiful.
The temperatures stayed in the upper 20s or low 30s. Nothing was going to melt. At least, not anytime soon.
Vicki had already warned me that our house didn’t have power. She was at work that afternoon, so I played outside in the sleet and snow with Bailey, our female golden retriever. Inside, the house was growing colder by the minute. So, I gathered some firewood and brought the stack — and a wet, freezing dog — into the house.
Vicki and I spent the first night in our bungalow curled up together by the fire place in the living room. By most standards, our fireplace was tiny, more decorative than functional. That first night was cold, frigidly cold. We huddled together on the hardwood floor. Sleeping bags and multiple blankets were no good against the biting cold.
We were much younger back then, and like many young people, much more resilient. Maybe more adaptable. At first, we considered this a kind of an adventure.
Toughing it out against the elements.
Reality won out and we ended up with friends in Collierville. A few days later, we were staying at a hotel on the south leg of I-240. Later that week the power came back on in our neighborhood. We were finally able to have a little normalcy in our lives.
We survived, however. Twenty-seven years later, we have a wonderful gift from the 1994 ice storm. See, today, February 19, 2021, is our daughter’s 27th birthday. Emily was born a week after the ’94 storm, three weeks earlier than expected.
Yes, Vicki was eight-months pregnant when Memphis and the Mid-South were pummeled with ice, sleet, and snow. Our Emily has grown to become a wonderful, beautiful young woman. Each year, when we celebrate her birthday, Vicki and I know those memories and emotions can flood our minds, so we remind ourselves of how fortunate we are.
On the 27th anniversary of Ice Storm 1994, which coincided with our week of winter weather extremes, I simply want to tell my daughter, “I love you” and “Happy Birthday.”
You’re a survivor just like Mom and me.
Ken Billett is a resident of Poplar Ridge Farms – just within the Memphis city limits – and a contributor to StoryBoard Memphis.