Thursday, March 5, 2020

60 Years Ago, This Month: The Georgia Guard Responds Following Devastating Winter Storm

By Maj. William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

Ice-choked roads and downed trees greeted Georgia Guardsmen of Calhoun's Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 108th Armor Regiment in Rock City, Ga. March 3, 1960 following a severe ice storm that impacted Georgia. Georgia Guard Archives

Hurricane and winter emergencies in the past decade have brought the domestic response role of the National Guard to the forefront of national attention. But this mission is not of recent invention. In March 1960, hundreds of Georgia National Guards Soldiers and Airmen responded in the wake of severe ice and snow accumulation in North Georgia, part of a crippling winter event that gripped the southeastern United States.

The morning of March 2, 1960 dawned with the temperature near freezing across Georgia and neighboring states. A cold front moving south from Canada brought heavy precipitation which clung to trees and powerlines. As temperatures plunged, ice accumulated swiftly, as much as four inches thick in places.[i] The rapid accumulation of heavy ice snapped power poles and trees blocking roads and coating road surfaces with treacherous ice. With telephone lines down across north Georgia radio calls from amateur radio operators poured into the Georgia State Patrol and State Department of Defense Headquarters. The Georgia DoD and its Civil Defense Division, precursor of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, went to 24-hour manning, receiving messages and updates and relaying desperate pleas for help to state and federal agencies. Georgia’s Governor, and former Adjutant General, Ernest Vandiver authorized the Ga. National Guard to immediately provide all possible support to alleviate human suffering.[ii]

In the early hours of the response, the Civil Defense Division staffed nearly 40 rescue teams and prepared to respond. Facing massive power outages and with emergency power generators running out of fuel at hospitals, radio stations, fire and police stations, Maj. Gen. George Hearn, Georgia’s Adjutant General ordered, teams to deliver generators and fuel to hospitals and shelters from Carrollton and Villa Rica in the west, to Jackson in the south, and to Rome, Cave Spring in the north. Air National Guard generators from Dobbins Air Force Base were transported by military vehicles over treacherous ice-slicked roads and were in place by the early morning hours of March 3. By then, the temperature had plunged to zero degrees in Chattanooga and throughout North Georgia.[iii] The Georgia Army National Guard armory in Rome opened its doors to citizens and provided hot meals cooked on field stoves. Meanwhile, Rome Guardsmen, led by Capt. Lewis Varnedoe, commander of Company A, 2nd Battalion 108th Armor, fanned out to survey damage and rescue ice-bound citizens.[iv]
Georgia National Guard Soldiers of the Rome-based Company A, 2nd Battalion, 108th Armor Regiment under the command of Capt. Lewis Varnedoe, inspect a generator installed at a school in Cave Spring, Ga. March 3, 1960 following a severe ice storm that impacted Georgia.  Georgia Guard Archives.

Georgia Army National Guard helicopters mobilized to deliver supplies to stricken North Georgia counties. Major General Hearn accompanied one of the first flights and observed damage from the air. These aerial surveys over Calhoun and Rome helped direct relief efforts. Guardsmen of Calhoun’s Headquarters, 2-108th Armor were dispatched north to Rock City, one of the hardest hit areas where hundreds of homes were without power. The Guardsmen patrolled the streets with radio-equipped jeeps. One of these patrols located a remote home which had been completely isolated by shattered trees and ice. Finding the home without power or heat, the Guardsmen evacuated the family and transported a child to a hospital in Chattanooga for treatment of pneumonia. 
Georgia Army National Guard helicopters on the ground in Rock City, Ga. March 3, 1960 following a severe ice storm that impacted Georgia. Georgia Guard Archives.

Impact was not isolated to North Georgia. In Atlanta, the power failed at the Georgia National Guard headquarters and an emergency power generator was required to maintain the vital communications center which continued to receive calls for assistance. Guardsmen transported more than 400 cots to a shelter facility in Covington.

Subfreezing temperatures continued for a week, complicating efforts to clear roads and reach desperate citizens. On March 9, the situation became even more desperate as a snowstorm dropped from four to eight inches of snow over north Georgia on March 9. This snowstorm, following closely on the heels of the devastating effects of ice would prompt second response which will be chronicled in a follow up article.

[i] Lee, Laurence G. A Review of the Record-Breaking Snow and Persistent Cold of February and March 1960. §. Accessed March 2, 2020.
[ii] "Frigid March Weather Brings Ice & Snow Storms – Crippling Power, Transportation." The Georgia Guardsman Magazine, April 1960, 6.
[iii] Shearer, John. “Big Ice Storm was 50 Years Ago This Month.” The Chattanoogan, March 6, 2010. Accessed March 1, 2020.
[iv] Guardsman, 7.

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