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This is how bad it could have been: Atlanta's crippling ice storm of 1973

By Steve Goldberg, CNN
updated 10:48 PM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
WAGA's coverage of the 1973 storm shows ice-covered trees on power lines; much of Atlanta was in the dark for a week.
WAGA's coverage of the 1973 storm shows ice-covered trees on power lines; much of Atlanta was in the dark for a week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 41 years ago, major ice storm felled trees, power lines across Atlanta
  • Metro area of 1.5 million lost power for up to a week
  • Families huddled in homes, blocked off rooms, used gas stoves for heat
  • This is the storm forecasters feared for the city this week

Atlanta (CNN) -- All through the night, limbs fell and transformers blew. Each sent a sharp crack that echoed across the neighborhood.

When dawn broke, we could see the culprit -- and the damage: Pines in the park across the street stood naked like telephone poles, stripped of their branches under the weight of ice.

Elsewhere, whole trees were felled. And across the city, the power was out, overhead lines brought down by ice, trees and boughs.

The city in a forest was in the dark. And so were we.

I was 12 when that happened -- in 1973 -- and I spent much of Wednesday waiting for another "storm of the century" to hit Atlanta.

Snow, sleet and ice pummeled the Southeast, and hundreds of thousands lost power. But it was nothing like the ice storm that walloped the city 41 years ago and plunged the Capital of the New South into seven days of survival.

This time, fortunately, most of the area dodged the bullet. That's not to say the storm didn't take a toll. At least two people's deaths were attributed to the weather, and others experienced close calls. But it could have been so much worse.

This is the storm that forecasters feared: trees laden with ice bringing a city of 6 million to its knees for a week.

I remember it like it was yesterday:

See 1973 footage of the storm from WAGA on YouTube

We lost power almost immediately -- and with it the heat. We had a gas furnace in the basement, but without its electric blower it was useless.

Once the shock of what had happened wore off, and before my sister and I were allowed outside to explore the icy wonderland, my parents acted fast. Mom turned on the gas stove in the kitchen while Dad made space in the adjoining den for us to sleep.

We were one of the lucky families; my folks hadn't gotten around to remodeling the kitchen in our prewar home with one of those newfangled electric ovens. We still had a source of heat.

Dad dragged mattresses from our bedrooms and laid them out next to the pull-out sofa. He and Mom gathered piles of clothes and blankets, while my sister and I rounded up our favorite toys and books from our rooms. And then the doors to the rest of the house were closed. Sealed off.

For the next six days, this would be our home: the kitchen, breakfast room and den-turned-bedroom heated by a life-saving gas oven. Candles in Coke bottles illuminated the darkness. Trips to the bathroom on the other side of the house were fast -- and freezing.

To me, a space geek who followed all the Gemini and Apollo missions on live TV, our three-room hovel was a survival capsule where four Earthbound astronauts huddled for warmth, much like the three Apollo 13 spacemen who had turned their crippled craft into a makeshift life raft that brought them home alive.

Of course our situation wasn't nearly as dire as that scenario, made famous later by Tom Hanks and Ron Howard. But the imagination of a 12-year-old works wonders in fighting the boredom of being cooped up with your parents and younger sister for a week.

After a few days, our phone service was restored -- it had gone out with the power; this was decades before wireless technology and cell phones -- and my mother began calling her friends and cousins.

One of my favorite cousins lived a few miles away, and the electricity was on at his family's house. They invited us to stay with them immediately.

My parents held out hope that our power would be back soon, but after two more days of roughing it and no sign of Georgia Power on our street, they finally relented. We packed up the car and headed over to Herschel's place.

His neighborhood was a mess -- trees down everywhere -- and on Saturday morning the men came out of their homes carrying chainsaws and gas cans. We watched in fascination as they ripped through the limbs, snow still on the ground, and turned debris into firewood.

After helping haul wood, we were treated with mugs of hot chocolate. And by Sunday night -- a week after the storm started -- we learned that our power, too, was back. Turns out we were one of the last streets the linemen reached. They must have been exhausted.

Now school loomed -- after a cold but glorious break -- and Dad would be returning to work. We went home and dismantled our lifeboat, and for the first time in a week spent the night in our own beds.

What local reporters were calling the "storm of the century" was over. For longtime Atlantans, it was a storm we would never forget -- one that would make future storms a bit more bearable.

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