Robert Latham admits that when the current Severe Weather Preparedness Week was being planned, he and his staff at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) were concerned that the public would largely ignore it. But that is no longer an issue after last month when the state was rocked by numerous arctic blasts and two winter storms in less than a week in Central and South Mississippi.
“If there is one thing we learned from January is that we need to rethink what is ‘normal weather,’” said Latham, executive director of MEMA. “We have to be prepared.”
Emergency management officials have indeed been busy so far this year, and much of their efforts have been focused on weather-related events.
It was not the coldest January on record in Mississippi, but it easily made the top 10 and was the most frigid seen this century. And though the cold and ice and snow dominated headlines last month, it was also one of the driest Januarys in Mississippi history, leaving areas parched and at a high risk for wildfires going forward.
According to the National Weather Service, last month was frigid compared to the historical average. For example, Jackson’s historical mean low temperature for January is 35 degrees, but recorded temperatures as low as 15 degrees last month. The Capital City’s mean temperature last month was 40.2 degrees, the ninth-coldest January in state history.
Tupelo’s average low temperature for January is 35 degrees, but the Northeast Mississippi city saw the thermostat fall repeatedly into the teens and single digits with the lowest temperature hitting 6 degrees.
On January 7, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which serves parts of North Mississippi, recorded the second-highest winter peak demand in the utility’s history with the average low across its service footprint bottoming out at 4 degrees.
The farther one went south, the more extreme the cold compared to historical data. Hattiesburg recorded a mean temperature last January of 41.8 degrees, the fourth-coldest in Hub City history. The average low for January is 37 degrees, but residents saw an extreme low of 15 degrees last month.
But the most significant impact was caused by two winter storms that dumped ice and snow over much of Central and South Mississippi. On Jan. 23, Southwest Mississippi, including Natchez, saw snow as arctic air filtered into the state. The highest snowfall totals of 1-3 inches occurred in Adams County, but there were reports of light snow from Vicksburg to Jackson to Hattiesburg. Snow persisted into the early afternoon hours of Jan. 24.
That was a relatively minor event compared to the winter storm that rocked South and Central Mississippi Jan. 28. Areas along and north of a line from around Natchez to just south of Meridian began to observe precipitation that initially fell as sleet but gradually transitioned to snow. The Jackson metro, particularly areas in southeastern Rankin County, saw 2-4 inches of snowfall, with maximum of 4 inches in the Puckett area. Snow accumulation extended into north central Mississippi up to the Highway 82 corridor near Indianola eastward towards Macon but only a light dusting occurred in these regions. South of the mixed precipitation line, significant icing and sleet occurred in the region with upwards of 1-3 inches of sleet and snow. The most significant icing occurred into far southern Marion, Lamar and Forrest counties.
Significant icing on the roadways lingered as temperatures remained below freezing until Jan. 30 and led to multiple accidents and issues with travel as well as five fatalities.
In addition to freezing water systems, the cold weather and winter precipitation wrecked havoc on commerce statewide. In Natchez, businesses were paralyzed when the Mississippi River bridge became impassable. On the Coast, Boomtown Casino closed and Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula had to scrap a shift when employees couldn’t get to work.
The storms forced a major logistical realignment at MEMA.
“MEMA has most of its winter weather assets in North Mississippi,” Latham said. “We had to shift those assets south due to the winter storms. South Mississippi simply does not have the resources for a major winter storm, much less two in less than a week.”
Agriculture largely escaped the winter woes as crops are generally out of the field. Catfish farmers, though, were heavily impacted. Ben Pentecost, a catfish producer in Doddsville and president of the Catfish Farmers of America, said his crews struggled in late January to harvest during one of the state’s cold blasts only to have their nets freeze solid in 19-degree weather.
“We were fortunate that we didn’t have snow on top of the ice,” Pentecost said. “Snow would have choked sunlight to the ponds, which affects oxygen levels. We were lucky — our mortality rates should be low.”
Pentecost added that the ice did impact his ponds’ automated oxygen level-checking system, causing buoys to turn upside down, and his crews were laboring late last week to cull fish from his iced-over ponds for required flavor testing. Still, he said Mississippi producers came out fine compared to their neighbors.
“In Alabama, producers culled their fish in anticipation of (the last arctic blast), only to have their trucks get trapped on icy roads,” Pentecost said. “The fish were in the net for three days — that’s a long time.”
Despite the ice and snow, the state was exceptionally dry in January. As example, Vicksburg’s annual average precipitation for January is 6.28 inches. The Central Mississippi city only saw 1.89 inches of moisture last month.
Biloxi averages 5.07 inches of precipitation in January, but only recorded 2.32 inches last month.
This has heightened wildfire concerns. Though much of the state received welcome rain this week, several counties had already enacted burn bans, and a South Mississippi firefighter was killed last week while fighting a wildfire near Liberty in Amite County.
“Last week we were worried about ice and snow, and now we’re concerned about wildfires, which we normally don’t see in Mississippi,” Latham said. “There appears to be a new norm in our weather, and we have to adjust.”
In addition to winter-related issues, in January MEMA also dealt with a biodiesel plant fire near New Albany and a train derailment near New Augusta, both of which caused massive evacuations of homes.
Latham stopped short of calling last month the busiest January in MEMA history, but said it was “unusually active.”
MEMA public information officer Brett Carr summed it up succinctly: “It has been crazy.”