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January 18, 2013

‘Caught by surprise’ - Winter storm brings life to a halt across area

CULLMAN — Rain, sleet, and finally snow combined with chilly temperatures to bring Cullman County to a standstill Thursday as a winter storm passed through the area.

Schools throughout the City of Cullman and the county closed  early as the snow, while expected, caused more road issues than some officials anticipated. A decision on what time the schools would open today had not been made by officials at press time.

Area law enforcement officials spent the day working wrecks and helping to pull vehicles out of ditches. Roads became congested with traffic in Cullman as motorists were diverted from Interstate 65 to avoid Lacon Mountain, which became impassable at the height of the winter storm.

Phyllis Little, director of Cullman County Emergency Management Agency, said for much of the day the interstate was impassable on Lacon Mountain as state highway department workers struggled to get sand trucks to the area.

County road crews spent the afternoon sanding area bridges in an effort to give residents a chance to make it home before evening temperatures dropped below freezing and created new worries on the roads.

City police officers were out in full force across Cullman, helping to get stalled vehicles moving again.

“We’ve had continuous problems with minor wrecks and people running off the road. This caught a lot of people by surprise. Everyone knew the snow was coming, but the road conditions were not totally expected by everyone,” said Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper. “We pulled all of our Hummers of the surplus shop and helped people get their cars out of the ditches, and we were able to get to a lot of locations to help people because of the equipment we have.”

Culpepper said overnight and early morning temperatures will continue to cause problems on the roads.

“This morning people will find a lot of icy patches, and those that need to be out early need to be very careful,” Culpepper said.

Wrecks were reported throughout the area. Culpepper said a count of the accidents was unknown at press time. Early in the afternoon, Cullman County Sheriff Mike Rainey estimated 100 weather-related accidents along county roads.

Rainey also cautioned drivers to be out only if necessary while icy conditions exist.

“The roads will continue to be dangerous until we get a good melt off from the higher temperatures,” Rainey said.

The day produced logistical problems for county schools as buses, en route to pick up students, were stalled because of road conditions. At least two buses had to be towed before road conditions improved.

Students at schools in West Point, Harmony and Cold Springs had to wait several hours before they could get home because of the weather conditions.

Superintendent Billy Coleman closed schools at 1 p.m., but road conditions deteriorated so rapidly that many buses could not complete their routes. The buses were restarted at 3:20 p.m.

City schools released students between noon and 12:15 p.m.

As expected during snowy weather, grocery stores saw early runs on milk and bread. The Piggly Wiggly store in Jones Chapel sold out of milk and bread by the early afternoon after receiving new supplies that morning. The store manager, Tammy Pirkle, said every effort would be made to open at 7 this morning. The Piggly Wiggly store in Cullman remained open at night and planned to open at 7 this morning.

By 4:20 p.m., the state was able to reopen one lane of the interstate at Lacon Mountain.

David Palmer may be contacted at dpalmer@cullmantimes.com or 256-734-2131, ext. 213.

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