By any name, this storm was cataclysmic
One morning, it was just a cluster of clouds over Texas that forecasters had been watching for days.
By nightfall, an area of rapidly developing low pressure had developed. When combined with frigid air steamrolling in from the north, the stage was set.
Some called it the “Storm of the Century.” Others called it the “No-Name Storm.”
No matter the name, it was devastating.
Winds of more than 100 mph were clocked as a strong line of thunderstorms marched onshore on the west coast of Florida during the late-night hours of March 12, 1993, and the early morning hours the following day. A storm surge of more than 12 feet in some coastal locations swept ashore.
In those days, people couldn't watch weather radar on their cell phones and computers. There weren't as many weather buoys in the Gulf of Mexico to detail how fierce the winds and waves were. And The Weather Channel certainly didn't name winter storms.
Nearly a dozen tornadoes smashed houses to splinters. Giant waves carried houses away.
Meteorologists knew a storm was coming; they just didn't know how nasty – and one for the record books -- it was going to be.
“It was a unique beast,” said Charlie Paxton, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Ruskin who was working that night 20 years ago.
And it wasn't just a Florida event.
The system that was a superstorm long before Sandy dumped snow in a record blizzard from Alabama and Georgia up the East Coast and into Maine. It covered a third of the nation, stretching from Canada to Central America. In the Tampa Bay area, the extremely low pressure triggered a bounty of births at local hospitals.
More than 250 people died from Florida northward. The damage toll was more than $3 billion.
Forecasters in the Tampa Bay area and elsewhere in Florida had seen storm surges from hurricanes before. But they had never seen such a thing from a winter storm.
“We hadn't experienced a storm like that during the cool season,” said Paxton. “It wasn't a hurricane, but it had hurricane-strength winds.
“Those surges were not expected, not like that,” the forecaster added. “We knew that low pressure areas over the gulf can raise water levels and cause more of the nuisance type of surge, but we had no idea that this surge would be of this magnitude.”
Neither did Fred Bellet, who lived on Pine Island in Hernando County.
Bellet, a photographer for The Tampa Tribune at the time, and his girlfriend, Kimberly Kelly, awoke in the early morning hours of March 13 to the sound of water sloshing. The water was inside the house.
As the inches of water became feet, the two sought shelter in the crawl space in the attic. When the water kept rising, Bellet had to break through the roof so they could climb out of the attic.
“The surge was just incredible,” Bellet said, recalling the view of waves crashing over his rooftop two decades ago.
Pieces of the house were being ripped apart as they watched. The tiny section of roof they were on was dislodged and they ended up being sandwiched between two trees.
“We were up to our chins in water and holding on to the top of a treetop with just a little piece of rooftop under our feet,” Bellet said. “We were in God's hands.”
By about 8 that morning, however, they were in a Coast Guard helicopter rescue bucket – plucked from atop their precarious perch.
“If the Coast Guard did not arrive when they did, you would not be speaking with me today,” Bellet said.
Rose Nohejl, who lived in Weeki Wachee at the time, wasn't worried about losing her life like Bellet was.
“But we lost everything,” she said.
The family lived on a canal a few miles from the Gulf. Occasionally, they saw a few inches of water creep into their yard over the years. But not nearly 5 feet.
When she saw the water levels at unprecedented heights in the darkness hours of that morning, she told her husband and son: “Come on, let's get out of here.”
They grabbed the family dog and left in water that was up to their hips.
“It came up everywhere,” she said. “The water just came rushing up.”
When they got back to the house on Alpaca Drive, they found everything inside in ruins.
“It was just a mess,” she said. “There was sludge on everything.”
For all of its tragic and negative impacts, the deadly superstorm did have some positive consequences as well.
The federal government put more weather observation buoys in the Gulf, including one 100 miles west of Bayport that is key to getting crucial data to forecasters in Ruskin. More money was invested in computer models to forecast such catastrophic events. The installation of the more technological Doppler radar in Ruskin was moved forward by more than a year.
“We know so much more now,” Paxton said. “A little experience goes a long way.”