The storm had been predicted for days, but the snow faked out most forecasters, swerving toward north and central Alabama when meteorologists and state officials had expected it to hit worst in the Black Belt.
That shift took many communities by surprise. Mike Fincher, director of safety for Calhoun County Schools, said he had never seen a forecast miss the mark so badly as Tuesday's.
"We were expecting a light dusting and we got hit hard," said Fincher early on Tuesday evening. As many as 150 students remained stranded at county schools by 5 p.m., as road conditions prevented buses and parents from getting to the schools.
While the forecast initially called for about a half-inch of snow in Anniston on Tuesday morning, areas of Calhoun and Talladega counties saw anywhere between 2 and 3 inches by late afternoon, said Matthew Duplantis, a meteorologist with the Weather Service’s office in Calera.
“I wouldn’t say we were caught off-guard because we projected this for quite some time, but it came earlier than we had expected,” Duplantis said Tuesday afternoon. “That caused the warm air to settle in above the cold air, which is what brought the heavy snow.”
Duplantis said the early snowfall caused the line of expected winter storms to move farther north than anticipated, meaning Anniston was right in the line of snowfall meteorologists had predicted would hit farther south in the Montgomery area. Areas along Interstate 20 were hit the hardest in the state, Duplantis said.
Further snowfall is unlikely for the rest of the week according to the National Weather Service, but temperatures are expected to remain below freezing until Thursday.
State takes action
Gov. Robert Bentley announced Tuesday that he’d extended an emergency declaration so state officials can help motorists and schoolchildren across the state who are stranded as a result of a winter storm.
“This is a very dangerous situation,” Bentley said. “People need to say at home. They need to stay there until conditions improve.”
Bentley and other state officials held a press conference in a Montgomery city communications center Tuesday to outline their response to a winter storm that covered much of Alabama with ice and snow.
Bentley said drivers were stranded on roadways across the state, particularly in the highly populated Interstate 20 corridor.
“If you’re stuck in your car, stay in your car,” state emergency management director Art Faulkner said at the press conference, which was broadcast live by some news outlets. He urged stranded motorists to stay in their vehicles and call for help if they ran out of gas.
Bentley urged Alabamians to call 911 if they have an emergency – and to stay off the roads.
“You need to keep in mind that you need to dial 911 if you have a true emergency,” he said
Bentley said loss of electrical power due to the storm has been minimal. If power in schools went out, creating a heating problem, Bentley said he’d send the National Guard to help students and staff leave schools.
Bentley and other officials warned all Alabamians to stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary. State offices will be closed Wednesday and will not open until at least noon Thursday, he said. Roughly 350 members of the National Guard have been activated to deal with the storm, Bentley said.
Bentley had held a press conference Monday, before the snow hit, to announce that he was declaring a state of emergency and moving some road-maintenance equipment and other resources from the northern half of the state to south Alabama, where the storm was expected to be at its worst.
State officials said Tuesday that some of that equipment was being moved back north, though some was still needed where it was.
“We did not expect the freezing rain to go as far north as it has,” Bentley said.
The governor urged Alabamians to behave as they did after the tornado outbreak of 2011, when communities came together to help neighbors who were harmed by the storm.
Bentley said people shouldn’t take to the highways to check on neighbors, but should call or walk if possible. Otherwise, they should call first responders and ask them to check.
“Let’s look after our neighbors,” he said. “Neighbors look after neighbors in Alabama. That’s what we do.”
No matter where motorists went in Anniston on Tuesday afternoon, a blanket of white slush and near-standstill traffic awaited them.
Anniston police announced that city streets were closed at 11:30 a.m., but that seemed to have little effect. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on Alabama 21 from Oxford to Anniston all afternoon as people left work early to get home. The icy conditions caused motorists to drive slowly and others to get stuck, grinding traffic to a frustrating halt. A few motorists gave up completely, abandoning their cars and walking along Alabama 21.
In Oxford, traffic moved a little better, but not by much. At the Oxford Exchange shopping center and the area of hotels and restaurants across Interstate 20, there was little to no business. The Winn-Dixie on Golden Springs had more customers earlier Tuesday afternoon buying milk and other short-term food supplies.
Even neighborhood roads through Anniston were treacherous. Several motorists got stuck on a hilly section of Leighton Avenue, freed only by a friendly push from residents who lived nearby. A man trudged up the East 15th Street hill at mid-afternoon with a bag of dog food, reporting that the store where he’d bought it had closed for the day.
By the time it had been snowing for 45 minutes, 10th Street mountain in Anniston was impassable — cars slid as soon as they started uphill. On South Quintard Avenue, traffic was slow, even slower on the northbound side, due to a pickup truck that had flipped over, landing on cars for sale on a dealer’s lot.
A 9-mile drive from Anniston through Oxford to Golden Springs took about an hour and a half. The return trip took another three and a half hours. Few if any cars were able to make it up the snow-covered hill just south of downtown. Ambulances drove up the wrong side of Quintard to get through the crowded street. The only vehicle that made it through with any ease was a National Guard Humvee escorting one of the many ambulances.
In the waning hours of afternoon daylight Tuesday, southbound traffic at the 431/21 intersection was snarled due to large trucks blocking the roadway. Drivers approaching from the south had the rare Alabama experience of driving on pavement that was covered by snow and sand.
Closings & shelters
The Anniston Army Depot said workers for Wednesday’s first shift need not report to work. An announcement about Wednesday’s second shift should be announced after noon, according to a statement from the depot.
Most local schools announced they will be closed Wednesday and Thursday.
Gadsden State Community College announced all campuses will be closed Wednesday.
Jacksonville State University cancelled all classes for Wednesday. Stephenson Hall on the JSU campus has been designated a temporary shelter and warming center for students and employees, according to a release from the university.
Anniston Mayor Vaughn Stewart said City Hall will remain closed Wednesday, but the Public Works and Street departments would work around the clock to clear roads. Stewart said the priority for city workers was to make sure roads around hospitals and public buildings were accessible.
Stewart said the National Guard was providing assistance to the city in form of vehicles and personnel, but resources were limited because the winter storm had been anticipated to hit much farther south in the state.
Calhoun County Administrator Ken Joiner said the county administration building and the courthouse would remain closed Wednesday.
The Salvation Army shelter on Noble Street, which has been open since 8 a.m., waived its usual nightly fee of $10 Tuesday for those who wanted to wait out the cold, according to Joe Jankoski, chapter executive for the Calhoun Cleburne chapter of the American Red Cross.
Warming stations were set up at Greenbrier Baptist Church and the Oxford Civic Center.
Star staff members Brian Anderson, Ben Cunningham, Madasyn Czebiniak, Bill Edwards, Tim Lockette, Deirdre Long and Patrick McCreless contributed reporting for this story.