The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

January 29, 2014

Winter storm lingers with freezing temperatures


Associated Press

— BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — People stranded overnight at school, at work or in their cars had a simple goal Wednesday: Just to get home. But Alabama's winter storm continued getting in their way as it entered a second day, with roads turned to ice from a hard freeze.

Thousands of people were stuck in traffic for hours around the Birmingham area, and others camped out in offices, school libraries or gymnasiums because roads were impassable. State troopers say five people died in traffic accidents that appeared weather-related. The fatalities were near Wetumpka, Marion and Cottondale.

Linda Moore spent 12 hours stuck in her car on Interstate 65 south of Birmingham before a firefighter used a ladder to help her cross the median wall and a shuttle bus took her to a hotel where about 20 other stranded motorists spent the night in a conference room.

"I boohooed a lot," she said. "It was traumatic. I'm just glad I didn't have to stay on that Interstate all night, but there are still people out there."

Moore's car moved less than 4 miles and burned a half-tank of gas during the ordeal. Her daughter, a schoolteacher, was stranded at school with kindergartners overnight.

Karen Evans spent the night with about 100 people at the Pelham Civic Complex after being unable to get home to Columbiana. She left work after 10 a.m. and had only moved a few miles on U.S. 31 by 5 p.m., but she did make it to the shelter.

"People were getting out of their cars and just leaving them in the road," said Evans.

Gov. Robert Bentley's office said rescue personnel and medics in state aircraft were flying over Jefferson and Shelby counties conducting search and rescue missions for stranded motorists.

On the coast, snow covered grass and sidewalks in Orange Beach. Ice-covered roads forced mass closings even in Mobile, where ice coated ornate iron balconies.

No one knew exactly how many people were stranded, but some major employers such as Blue Cross Blue Shield had hundreds of people sleeping in offices overnight. Workers watched movies on their laptops, and office cafeterias gave away food.

Stephanie Reynolds, a second-grade teacher, spent the night with about 10 students and two dozen co-workers at Meadow View Elementary School in Alabaster. Many of the children's parents were stuck in cars in roadways and unable to pick up their kids, she said.

Reynolds comforted crying children, played games and did lesson plans for two weeks. A dance party helped fill up a few minutes, and the school dietitian stayed to make pizza for dinner and biscuits and gravy for breakfast.

"The students have been here so long: all day yesterday, overnight and now," said Reynolds. "I'm going on no sleep right now. I didn't even try. I figured since I was here I might as well be productive."

Fire trucks took two children home from the school overnight, and firefighters were planning more runs after daybreak. About 20 miles north, around 110 children and 30 adults camped out on exercise mats in classrooms at Oak Mountain Intermediate School, said principal Pat LeQuier.

"We sang 'Happy Brithday' to two children who actually had birthdays yesterday," she said.

In Hoover, police said they rescued about 200 people who were stuck overnight in cars on Interstate 65 or I-459 as temperatures fell to near 10 degrees. About 4,500 children and adults spent the night in schools, and as many as 800 people were in shelters, said police Capt. Jim Coker.

"We are going in to a meeting to discuss returning people to their cars and future operations today," said Coker.

Northeast of Birmingham in Etowah County, police used a military-style armored vehicle to take home 14 children who weren't able to leave a high school.

Republican state Rep. Mack Butler of Rainbow City spent Tuesday night sleeping in a truck at a gas station in Birmingham, where other stranded motorists sought refuge. Butler said he was headed to a meeting of the Legislature on Tuesday afternoon in Montgomery when he had to stop because interstate highways were impassable and littered with hundreds of wrecked and abandoned vehicles.

"It looked like the zombie apocalypse," Butler said Wednesday.

There was a bright spot: Electricity stayed on for most people.

Alabama Power, the state's largest electric utility, reported no problems in central and south Alabama. Alabama Power and other utilities reported about 21,000 customers without power in south Alabama at the height of the storm, but that was reduced to less than 4,000 by late Wednesday morning.

"That's less than the typical thunderstorms that move through in summer," Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman said.

Roads were closed across much of the state overnight because of severe icing, and state troopers said weather was likely to blame for three traffic deaths. Streets in downtown Montgomery were solid white with a layer of frozen snow, and state government was shut down through noon Thursday like thousands of schools, businesses and local government offices.

Forecasters said temperatures should rise above freezing Wednesday, but not by much so it was unknown whether roads would thaw enough to allow traffic to move normally.

It didn't take much snow to bring normal life to a halt: The National Weather Service said as much as 4 inches of snow fell in spots, although most areas received less.

In Birmingham, where residents were caught off guard because forecasters had predicted only a trace of precipitation and no travel problems, about 2 inches of snow and ice coated roads.