Ala. highway jammed as snow storm crosses South

Published 12:02 pm Saturday, January 19, 2013

A traffic jam that extended at least eight miles on Interstate 65 in Alabama, forcing hundreds of motorists to camp out in vehicles overnight after a rare Southern snowfall, finally cleared Friday as rising temperatures melted remnants of the freeze.

Some questioned whether road officials were caught flat-footed by a winter storm that had been predicted for days, but the state highway department denied being unprepared.

Hundreds of people spent a cold night trapped on I-65 north about 50 miles north of Birmingham after a winter storm dumped snow around the Southeast and caused at least one death in Mississippi. As much as 4 inches fell in Alabama on Tuesday, quickly coating roads in northern counties, particularly higher elevations.

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The motorists got stuck on the interstate in Cullman County after the snow caused a series of wrecks and vehicles lost traction on a hilly stretch called Lacon Mountain. One of those trapped was lawyer Bob Bentley, who said he spent nearly 14 hours in his Toyota Prius before he could begin moving again at 4 a.m.

“I played a lot of ‘Words with Friends.’ I found some old food under the seat, some old Christmas pretzels. I listened to all the NPR programs twice,” Bentley said. “It was awful. It was tedious.”

Bentley said people just turned off their cars and sat there since there wasn’t anywhere to go. He said people were getting out of their vehicles, building snowmen and walking to the edge of the woods to relieve themselves.

Cindy Parker, who works at a Shell gasoline station just off I-65 in Cullman, said a steady stream of frustrated motorists stopped at the store to buy food, get directions and vent.

“Weather like this is so unusual for us, they don’t realize that the hills and bridges between Birmingham and Huntsville will get so icy,” she said.

Skies were sunny and temperatures in the 40s by midday Friday. The highway was flowing freely without backups, but abandoned and wrecked cars littered the roadsides, along with melting snowmen.

Bentley said the backup was particularly frustrating because it occurred in an area well-known for slippery conditions during winter weather. Bentley questioned why sand or brine trucks were not used to prevent the problem before it occurred.

Tony Harris, a spokesman with the Alabama Department of Transportation, said the agency had prepared for the storm and was surprised only by the large number of wrecks on the highway.

Cullman County’s emergency management director, Phyllis Little, said the jam was made all the worse by drivers who got on the interstate despite the backup.

“Even with the interstate backed up as far as you could see, people were still trying to get on it,” she said. “Troopers were flashing their lights at people to stop them, and they finally closed exit 310 to keep them off.”

Little said 120 motorists made it to a shelter in Cullman, but many more couldn’t.

In Virginia, the areas hardest hit Thursday and Friday were in the southwest, where the National Weather Service says 13 inches were reported in Giles County, while Grayson County and the Galax area received about a foot.

Road crews in that part of the state were out in force early Friday to plow and treat roads. Hardest hit was Interstate 77. The highway still had snow cover and there were reports of disabled vehicles along the roadway.

Virginia State Police say they were swamped with calls at the height of the storm. Dispatchers fielded more than 760 calls reporting crashes and disabled vehicles.

While the winter storm wasn’t as severe as initially feared, icy roads remained a concern Friday morning and some school systems decided to open late.

Parts of Mississippi saw 2 to 4 inches of snow on the ground Thursday. In Lowndes County, Highway Patrol spokesman Cpl. Criss Turnipseed said Johnnie A. Matthews, 64, of West Point died when his car collided with a downed tree about 5 a.m. on Mississippi Highway 50.

Turnipseed says the large pine tree in the roadway appeared to have been uprooted by wind and ground saturation due to excessive rainfall. The winter blitz follows days of heavy rain across much of the Southeast.

No other fatalities were reported, but thousands lost power.

In Alabama, scores of schools, businesses and government offices as far south as metro Birmingham pushed back opening times for Friday because of the threat of icy roads after freezing temperatures overnight.

With more freezing temperatures predicted next week, Birmingham officials said they would open the city auditorium for homeless people to seek shelter at night.