The Nation's Worst Ice Storms

Chris Dolce and Jon Erdman
Published: January 11, 2017

The most destructive ice storms feature heavy ice accumulation, sometimes on the order of several inches, that, when combined with strong winds, bring down trees and power lines, plunge hundreds of thousands into the dark sometimes for several days.

We've collected a list of the top 10 worst ice storms in U.S. history, starting with one in northern Idaho.

10.) New Year's 1961 (Northern Idaho)

A three-day ice event ushering in 1961 featuring not only freezing rain, but also occasional freezing fog set a U.S. record ice accumulation of eight inches in north-central Idaho, according to Weather Underground's Christopher Burt (blog). 

Power outages and tree damage was widespread in this area.

Incidentally, one somewhat common ice storm corridor is along the Columbia River, where subfreezing air spilling over the Continental Divide can sometimes remain trapped ahead of a wet Pacific storm.

9.) January 2000 (Atlanta)

Pedestrians make their way along an icy street outside the Georgia Dome before the start of Super Bowl XXXIV between the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans In Atlanta, Georgia. (Rick Solomon/Getty Images)

The timing couldn't have been worse, and the impact of this ice storm continues to this day in Atlanta.

The week before Super Bowl XXXIV, an ice storm left half a million customers without power, some for more than a week. Just days later, another winter storm hit Atlanta on Super Bowl weekend.

Jan. 2000 ice storm facts:

  • Estimated total losses in north Georgia: $48 million
  • The second winter storm disrupted practice the Saturday before the Super Bowl. Roads from the teams' hotel to the Georgia Dome were too hazardous.
  • Atlanta has not hosted another Super Bowl since 2000. 
  • Atlanta lost a bid to host the 2009 Super Bowl, awarded instead to Tampa, Fla.
  • In February 2011, Super Bowl XLV was disrupted by a week-long snow/ice event in Arlington, Texas.
  • (MORE: Five Worst Weather Super Bowls, NFL Title Games)

8.) New Year's Eve 1978 (North Texas)

Daily weather map from Dec. 31, 1978 of the N. Texas ice storm. (NOAA Central Library/U.S. Daily Weather Maps Project)

There have been many ice storms in Texas history. 

Six inches of ice accumulated in parts of northwest Texas on Jan. 22-24, 1940, according to Weather Underground's Christopher Burt.

As we mentioned earlier, Super Bowl week in February 2011 was a snowy, icy mess.

New Year's Eve 1978 was the worst ice storm in North Texas in three decades, producing ice accumulations up to 2 inches thick in a 100 mile-wide swath from just west of Waco to Paris, Texas.

New Year's Eve 1978 ice storm facts:

  • 2,000 residents treated for injuries from vehicle accidents, falls on ice and frostbite.
  • Nearly 300,000 Dallas County customers lost power for two days. Others lost power for up to 10 days.
  • $14 million in damage in Dallas County

7.) Christmas 2000

Ice accumulation in Hope, Ark. in the Christmas 2000 ice storm. (NWS-Shreveport, La.)

You can certainly vouch for grumpy moods around Christmas 2000 in parts of the South.

In mid-December, an ice storm left more than 500,000 without power in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. At the time, one Arkansas official called it the most destructive ice storm he'd seen to the electrical utility infrastructure, there.

Just under two weeks later, the weather grinch delivered a lump of coal to stockings from New Mexico to Oklahoma and Arkansas in the form of another ice storm. 

Christmas 2000 ice storm facts:

  • Over 1 inch of accumulated ice in many locations from northeast Texas into southeast Oklahoma, Arkansas and northern Louisiana.
  • At least 600,000 customers were without power.
  • These were the two most widespread, damaging ice storms of record in Arkansas history at the time, dating to 1819, according to the National Weather Service.
  • Much of cities of Texarkana, Hot Springs and Little Rock, Ark. were without power.
  • Water systems in Texarkana and Hot Springs, Ark. were also down.
  • FEMA Director James Lee Witt's western Ark. farm also lost power.

6.) New England 1921

View of Worcester, Mass. after the November 1921 ice storm. (Used with permission from the Worcester Historical Museum)

One of the most prominent ice storm alleys in the U.S. is the interior Northeast, from northern Pennsylvania, central and upstate New York into New England.

In the days after Thanksgiving 1921, a four-day ice storm with accumulations over three inches in spots, crippled parts of New England, including the city of Worcester.

Damage to power lines, trees, and phone lines was estimated at $20 million. Adjusted for inflation, this storm today would've caused over a quarter million dollars in 2013.

Compounding the mess were high winds, turning streets into ice rinks, a challenge to anyone on foot.

In his book, Extreme Weather, Weather Underground's Christopher Burt cites a paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society stating "ice on the side of any dense, unbroken evergreen tree 50 feet high and on average 20 feet wide would have weighed five tons" due to the weight of accumulated ice.

At the time, this was the most destructive ice storm of record in New England.

5.) Great Ice Storm of 1951

Ice and snow cover Nashville after the 1951 storm. Credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives/Ralph Morrissey Collection

A more than 100-mile wide swath from Louisiana to West Virginia was affected by a severe ice storm from Jan. 29-Feb. 2 in 1951.

1951 ice storm facts:

  • Ice accumulations of up to two inches reported on power lines and tree limbs.
  • The heaviest accumulations were between Memphis, Tenn, Nashville, Tenn. and Lexington, Ky. Nashville was buried under ?eight inches of ice and snow by the time everything was finished on Feb. 1.
  • High winds from a line of thunderstorms that developed from southwest Louisiana to central Mississippi and northern ?Alabama combined with the glazing of ice to result in widespread tree and powerline damage.
  • The storm was also accompanied by frigid temperatures. Nashville recorded a low temperature of 13 degrees below zero on Feb. 2.
  • Communications and utilities interrupted for a week to 10 days.
  • Damage was estimated to be $100 million.
  • 25 people were killed and about 500 were injured.

4.) Dec. 4-5, 2002 Ice Storm

An early-season winter storm struck many states from Dec. 4-5 in 2002. Locations from Oklahoma to southern Missouri, southern Illinois, Kentucky, northern Tennessee, northeast Georgia and the Carolinas were impacted by freezing rain, sleet and snow. Accumulating snow also affected parts of the Middle Atlantic and Northeast. North Carolina was hardest hit by freezing rain accumulations.

2002 ice storm facts:

  • One of the worst ice storms to ever hit North Carolina.  
  • Accumulations of up to an inch were reported in central parts of the state. 
  • The storm caused the largest power outage in North Carolina's history. More than 1.7 million customers lost power and 41,000 remained without power eight days later.
  • Widespread damage to trees and power lines was reported.
  • Property damage almost $100 million in North Carolina.
  • Parts of the Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham metro areas were paralyzed for days

3.) Jan. 26-28, 2009, Arkansas and Kentucky

Damage in northern Arkansas from the 2009 ice storm. Credit: iWitness Weather/patpie

Days of freezing rain led to heavy ice accumulations of one to locally more than two inches in northern Arkansas and portions of Kentucky in late January of 2009. For perspective, accumulations of more than a half inch are considered crippling. 

The heavy ice coatings caused widespread damage to trees, power lines and power poles. Trees fell on homes and cars and blocked roads.

The storm was so damaging that the National Weather Service in both Paducah, Ky. and Louisville, Ky. rated it as the worst weather event of the decade for their respective areas.

Kentucky's governor, Steve Beshear, described it as the biggest natural disaster the state has experienced in modern history. Beshear called in National Guard troops to help clear roads and go door to door to check on families in the western part of the state (the worst-hit area).

In Arkansas, Mel Coleman, CEO of North Arkansas Electric Cooperative described the scene, "In all of my years I have never seen anything that compares to the damage this storm has caused. I have yet to see a mature tree standing that was not severely damaged. Just opening the door to the outside sounds like a war zone, with the continuous sounds of trees and limbs breaking."

2009 ice storm facts:

  • At its height, a total of 1.3 million residents were left without power in multiple states.
  • For Kentucky, it was the largest power outage in history with 609,000 homes and businesses in the dark.
  • Over 200,000 lost power in Louisville and it took as long as 10 days to get all customers back online. Area schools were out for up to a week.
  • Necessities such as food and water were difficult to obtain and lines for gas were hours long.
  • Heavy sleet accumulations across much of southern Illinois and parts of southeast Missouri caused dozens of roof collapses. 
  • At least 30,000 power poles were downed or snapped in Arkansas.
  • More than 145 miles of high-voltage transmission lines were downed in southeast Missouri.
  • Clean up of debris from the storm lasted into the summer
  • The storm claimed 24 lives in Kentucky and another 18 in Arkansas from a combination of traffic accidents, hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning.

2.) Feb. 9-13, 1994, Southern Ice Storm

The second worst ice storm in history hit the South Feb. 9-13, 1994. Extensive damage totaling $3 billion was reported in portions Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

1994 ice storm facts:

  • Of all the states affected, Mississippi Tennessee and Alabama saw the worst impacts.
  • More than 2 million lost power. A half million were still without power three days after the storm. Some residents in Mississippi were without power a month after the storm.
  • More than 80,000 utility poles were pulled down by the weight of the ice.
  • Downed trees and limbs caused widespread damage to homes, businesses and vehicles. Many roads were blocked as well, making travel nearly impossible in some areas.
  • In Mississippi, 3.7 million acres of commercial forests were damaged severely.
  • At least nine deaths related to direct or indirect impacts from the storm.

1.) Jan. 5-9, 1998, New England and Southeast Canada

Residents of Montreal, Canada walk with their belongings to their cars while seeking shelter after losing Jan. 8, 1998. Credit: MARCOS TOWNSEND/AFP/Getty Images
(Getty Images)

A crippling, devastating ice storm hit portions of upstate New York, northern Vermont, northern New Hampshire, much of Maine and southeast Canada. Its impacts were so severe that it made an exclusive list as one of 144 weather disasters compiled by NOAA which have exceeded a billion dollars in damage from 1980-2012.

1998 ice storm facts:

  • Total damage was $1.4 billion in the U.S. plus another $3 billion in Canada.
  • Over 500,000 in northern New England lost power. Near 80 percent of Maine's population lost electrical service.
  • The extensive power outages lasted for days and in some cases weeks.
  • 16 lives were lost in the U.S. and an additional 28 deaths related to the ice storm were reported in Canada.
  • Ice accumulations were as much as 3 inches thick in northern New York, northern New England and southeast Canada.
  • Rapid ice accumulations from the Jan. 7-9, 1998 downed millions of trees and caused widespread destruction of power lines and power poles.
  • Included in the millions of damaged trees were many maple and apple trees, which affected the maple sugaring and apple industries for years.
  • Outside of the crippling ice, this storm system also brought flooding to portions of the South, lower-Mississippi Valley and Upstate New York. The most severe flooding was in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee where more than 700 homes were damaged or destroyed. Total costs were $15 million in North Carolina and $20 million in Tennessee.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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