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January 18, 2013

Nowhere to go - Snow left many motorists stranded overnight on interstate

Wrecks across Cullman County — and especially on Interstate 65 — were so numerous during Thursday’s freakish snowstorm that the Alabama Department of Public Safety (DPS) was still tallying up the numbers Friday.

Cullman County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) director Phyllis Little said nearly all of the accidents appeared to have been low-speed wrecks involving only minor injuries.

“Most of what I was hearing yesterday was just people sliding off into ditches or into somebody else,” she said Friday evening. “A lot of people could not get off the interstate or get to the Red Cross shelter. If we could have gotten people off of Lacon mountain, from the 310 exit to the 318, we wouldn’t have had the problems that we did. But Cullman County was in the thickest band of snow that came through.”

As I-65 became snowbound during the day, and then iced over during the night, motorists found themselves either filling up local hotels or stranded right there on the roadway.

Hundreds of people spent a cold night trapped on I-65. The storm dumped snow around the Southeast and caused at least one death in Mississippi.

One of those trapped was lawyer Bob Bentley, who said he spent 14 hours stuck near Cullman before he could get away 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 over to the edge of the woods to relieve themselves.

The highway reopened in both directions by 9:30 a.m., Alabama state troopers said, but it would take time for traffic to move freely again because of the size of the blockage.

More than 100 travelers who were turned away from packed motels Thursday night made it to the Cullman Civic Center, where the Red Cross opened a shelter that housed them throughout the night.

“There were 118 people who stayed at the civic center,” said Little. “The Red Cross and DHR opened the shelter around 9 p.m. Thursday, and it closed at noon on Friday. The folks who came to the shelter were so appreciative, because all the hotels all over town were full. The Red Cross had hot sandwiches for them, and drinks, snacks and hot coffee.

“Everybody was greeted with a smile and something to drink, and there are 118 visitors to our county who will go away with a positive, even from such a negative set of circumstances.”

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.

At its worst, the standstill interstate traffic backed up for 16 miles, said Little.

“At one point, northbound traffic was backed up to Falkvillle, and southbound traffic was backed up from the top of Lacon mountain to the 302 exit, which is close to the rest area,” she said. “This was bumper-to-bumper: trailer trucks and cars sitting there, in gridlock, for hours. It took a long time for it to get moving again.”

Little said the entire event strained the resources of local response teams, but she was grateful for the spirit with which everyone pitched in to help.

“Law enforcement was just incredibly busy all day and all night, and they did as much as they possibly could with the resources that we have for this kind of event,” she said.

“The Cullman chapter of the Red Cross, and Kimberly Guy of DHR were so helpful at the shelter. And the Cullman city Parks and Recreation — [director] John Hunt had the center open, and the lights on, within 10 minutes of me calling him. There’s a lot of people who worked hard in Cullman County yesterday who need a pat on the back.”

Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at bbullard@cullmantimes.com or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.



Jay Reeves of the Associate Press contributed to this report.

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