By JAY REEVES
MONTGOMERY, Ala. —
The southern half of Alabama shut down Tuesday because of a rare storm that left a slippery layer of ice and snow across a region unaccustomed to dealing with the wintry threat.
Dozens of schools, government offices and businesses were closed until Thursday, and shoppers stripped store shelves of essentials such as bottled water. Workers spread sand on the steps of downtown buildings where a thin layer of ice made walking treacherous.
Gov. Robert Bentley declared a state of emergency, delaying three special legislative elections for a week and putting the Alabama National Guard on standby.
“The biggest risk is ice accumulation in south Alabama,” Bentley said.
The National Weather Service said a mix of snow and ice was accumulating across a 20-county area of central Alabama as the storm moved eastward, and some bridges and roads were slippery. A winter storm warning was in effect.
The city of Prattville canceled garbage pickup so workers could spread sand on bridges, and Montgomery shut down its bus system. Police closed the Interstate 85 interchange at I-65 because of ice, and Tuscaloosa shut down its bypass.
Alabama Emergency Management Director Art Faulkner said widespread power outages were possible.
Snow began falling before dawn Tuesday in west Alabama, and a broad band of precipitation reached from the Gulf Coast to the mountains of northeast Alabama within hours.
Forecasters predicted small accumulations in north Alabama, but they said more than 3 inches of snow and ice was possible in central and south Alabama. Temperatures were predicted to rise above freezing in most areas by Wednesday afternoon, but authorities said problems could linger until Thursday.
With temperatures hovering around 30 degrees and light rain beginning to fall in Montgomery, Bradley Thrift of Waycross, Ga., sat in a hotel parking lot letting his truck warm up early Tuesday. Thrift was part of a crew of about 15 men working on sewers in the capital, and forecasts of ice and snow weren’t getting in their way.
“We’ve got a job to do. We’ll just be out in it,” said Thrift, wrapped up in a thick coat.
Thrift was driving a large panel truck, but he said he wasn’t concerned about the prospect of slippery roads.
“We’ll be safe. When the boss man says that’s it, it’s too slippery, we’ll just come back here and wait,” he said.
At a Publix grocery store a few miles away, shoppers had cleaned out three shelves of bottled water, and all the boxed fire logs were gone. The milk cabinet had big gaps where rows of gallon jugs were missing.
“We kept having to replenish the milk yesterday people were buying it so quickly,” said Jeneen Gabson, a store worker. “People think they’re going to be snowed in.”
School systems and colleges throughout the southern half of the state closed Tuesday, Wednesday or both days because of the weather, even on the coast in Mobile. Federal courts in Montgomery, Dothan and Opelika closed along with local government offices, but most state agencies remained open.
Operations were suspended because of possible icing at the Alabama State Port in Mobile, where workers use heavy equipment to load and unload tons of cargo from ocean-going ships.
“The port’s closing is intended to keep our port community safe during this storm, and we will reopen the port as soon as conditions allow” port chief executive Jimmy Lyons said.