With a Monster Storm Moving In, He Set Out on a 1,100-mile Drive

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Forecasters were warning of near-blizzard like conditions in Tulsa, Okla, with wind gusts up to 40 miles per hour. The governor had declared a state of emergency. An Arctic front bringing a “once-in-a-generation” winter storm was closing in.

Andrew Messersmith, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Oklahoma, set out Thursday morning, for a 1,100 mile drive east across seven states toward home in Charleston, S.C.

He had been studying the weather models for a few days and felt confident he would be safe on the road. The storm appeared to be moving across the country farther north than originally predicted. He would be traveling right along with the cold front, it seemed, but would mostly get dusty snow on the highways, rather than freezing rain.

After all, Mr. Messersmith is a meteorology major who spent the semester studying large-scale weather systems like the one he was about to drive through.

“I thought that I could stay just ahead of the heavy stuff,” he said in a phone interview from Birmingham, Ala. “If it wasn’t going to be safe to travel, I wouldn’t have.”

Amid snow flurries, howling gusts, and a wind chill around 20 below zero, the budding meteorologist and his secondhand 2000 BMW wagon hit the road about 10:30 a.m. Thursday.

Soon, he drove past a semi truck flipped on its side on the median and about a half dozen cars strewn about the roadside as though they had lost control.

Mr. Messersmith kept driving, occasionally looking at the radar images of the storm on his phone. The interstate was well-salted, and the blustery snow wasn’t accumulating on the largely empty roads. He wanted to make it back home by Friday afternoon. He was slated to join his parents, who are professional musicians, and his grandparents, who both play the piano, for their annual Christmas concert at his grandparents’ assisted living home. He plays the violin.

“The roads had snow on them but not slick. It was blowing snow, so it was hard to see the lines, but it wouldn’t affect brake time,” he said.

As he made his way through Arkansas, the weather warmed and the biggest hazard was the melted snow freezing on his windshield. The most treacherous part of the journey came after his pit stop in Memphis. In the 20 minutes he took to savoring his dinner at his go-to barbecue joint, the cold front appeared to overtake him. He emerged to find the temperatures had plummeted and what had been light snow had intensified.

The side streets leading to the interstate were not yet salted or cleared, and for about 10 miles, he had to inch along at 10 to 15 miles per hour, keeping a long following distance.

“That was the sketchiest part. I got behind the heavy snowband for a little bit,” he said.

By about 11 p.m., after about 12 hours on the road, he had safely reached Birmingham, where he stopped for the night to finish the drive Friday morning. The rest of the route to Charleston — where he nurtured a fascination for weather living through hurricane after hurricane, but almost never a snowstorm — looked like it would be clear and peaceful, as the storm hits the northeast.

In Birmingham, it was a toasty 50 degrees. But the cold front would soon catch up. Overnight, it was expected to drop to 11.

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