Five deaths in state attributed to snowstorm, which hit north of where expected
by Tim Lockette
Jan 29, 2014 | 7395 views |  0 comments | 45 45 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Traffic is at a standstill on Interstate 459 at US highway 280 as officials work to clear abandoned vehicles Wednesday January 29, 2014 in Birmingham, Ala. The winter storm that hit Alabama on Tuesday was wider and more severe than many officials expected. (AP Photo/Hal Yeager)
Traffic is at a standstill on Interstate 459 at US highway 280 as officials work to clear abandoned vehicles Wednesday January 29, 2014 in Birmingham, Ala. The winter storm that hit Alabama on Tuesday was wider and more severe than many officials expected. (AP Photo/Hal Yeager)
It took Michael Garrison 45 minutes to drive the two-and-a-half miles home from his Birmingham office Tuesday afternoon. It was a surprise for Garrison — and he works for the National Weather Service.

"Snow is hard to predict," said Garrison, a forecaster for the weather service.

Garrison was back at work Wednesday, as were thousands of state and local officials charged with digging Alabama out of Tuesday's snowstorm.

It was no blizzard, but Tuesday's storm outflanked meteorologists and emergency officials, covering the state's northern hills with ice, leaving drivers stranded and trapping kids in schools overnight. Forecasters had expected snow mostly south of Montgomery.

"This front moved in very quickly on all of us here," Gov. Robert Bentley said at a Birmingham press conference, which was broadcast across the state.

Five people in the state died as a result of the storm, said Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett, who was acting as as a spokesman for the state snow recovery effort Wednesday. At least three of those deaths, Corbett said, were traffic-related — two from a car crash and at least one from a car-train collision.

State officials also reported 23 storm-related injuries Tuesday and early Wednesday, though Corbett said it wasn't clear what types of injuries occurred.

The Department of Public Safety launched two helicopters Wednesday to search for any motorists who were still stranded in Jefferson or Shelby counties.

State officials said highways in those areas were littered with abandoned cars. It was the visible sign of the storm's unexpected shift north: Drivers in the state's biggest urban areas, having headed to work Tuesday with little expectation of snow, ended up stuck for hours as roads grew slick with ice. Many simply walked away from their cars. Corbett said the National Guard and other first responders worked into the early hours of Wednesday morning rescuing drivers who were still stuck.

At the press conference Wednesday afternoon, state emergency management director Art Faulkner said the helicopter search found no one still stranded on the road. He said state workers would begin clearing the roads of abandoned cars Thursday, as the temperature rose above freezing.

For hundreds of schoolchildren, it was the opposite of a normal school day. As many as 3,500 kids, stranded in schools Tuesday after snow began to fall, remained at school Wednesday morning. Bentley said some would likely remain for another night.

Most of the affected schools were along the Interstate 20 corridor, which was hardest hit by the unexpected winter weather. Corbett said an estimated 950 students sheltered at Birmingham City Schools overnight Tuesday, while 1,000 students spent the night at Jefferson County Schools and another 1,500 were stuck overnight in Shelby County Schools.

Corbett's official count also listed seven Anniston schools as housing children overnight Tuesday, though local officials told The Star they took the last remaining stranded students home around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Corbett acknowledged that it was difficult for the state to collect reliable numbers of stranded people as the recovery effort unfolded.

Of all the forecasters watching the storm, virtually no one — neither in the weather service nor the multiple television news outlets that watch the weather — had predicted that the snow-and-ice zone would expand so far north. Garrison, the National Weather Service forecaster, said that's just the nature of snow.

"There's very little water involved," he said. "The water it takes to make an eighth of an inch of rain will make an inch of snow."

With little water on the radar and temperatures near the freezing point, Garrison said, a small change in conditions can make a big difference.

Alabama Department of Transportation spokesman Tony Harris said the department first suspected a shift in the weather Tuesday morning when expected snow didn't arrive in the Mobile area. Then transportation officials started getting reports of snow delays north of where they should have been.

Harris urged drivers not to hit the road Wednesday. Most of the state remained below freezing Wednesday. Where the sun emerged, forecasters warned, the melting ice would likely re-freeze overnight, making roads again hazardous.

Temperatures in Anniston could drop as low as 10 degrees Wednesday night, Garrison predicted. The forecast high for Thursday was 42, he said.

It's likely that much of the state will be able to thaw out Thursday as well. Garrison said cities as far north as Huntsville will see temperatures above freezing.

For the weekend, temperatures will rise into the mid-60s, and will be there for a few days.

"We start a pattern change tomorrow," Garrison said Wednesday afternoon.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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