published Friday, February 14th, 2014

25,000 without power at worst in AL; thawing begins

By JAY REEVES

Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A winter storm that dropped as much as a foot of snow on parts of north Alabama over two days left almost 25,000 homes and businesses without electricity Thursday and snarled traffic.

Utility workers were out repairing downed power lines and road conditions improved quickly. But another night of freezing temperatures could cause more problems before temperatures rise into the 50s today.

Art Faulkner, the director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, said the state fared better this time than during a winter storm two weeks ago when thousands of people were stranded in schools, cars and workplaces.

"We're hoping it's going to be a good day," said Faulkner.

The worst power problems were around Birmingham, where Alabama Power Co. said about 9,900 customers lost electricity at the height of the outages, but the lights were coming back on. Thousands more were in the dark in Cullman County, to the north, and in the Tennessee Valley.

Morning traffic crawled on a snow-blanketed Interstate 65 south of the Tennessee line and an 18-wheeler flipped onto its side on I-59 in Birmingham. Fallen trees blocked several roads in Blount County, where chain saw crews were out working.

Problems weren't as bad as they could have been because many schools and workplaces closed or opened late for a third straight day. Some districts, planned to remain closed Friday because of hazardous road conditions while some others — including Jefferson County — planned to reopen or open on a delayed schedule.

"We learned a lesson a couple of weeks ago about being prepared," said Steve Alexander, who was out taking photos of his snow-covered church in downtown Birmingham shortly after daybreak.

Gov. Robert Bentley said this week's snow and ice storm was different from the Jan. 28 storm. The first storm hit quickly and went farther north than was forecast, which resulted in schools and businesses closing quickly in the Birmingham area and the interstates becoming clogged while they were becoming icy, Bentley said.

"It had a lot to do with the way that storm came in so quickly," he said.

This week, the storm path followed the forecast and did not affect as much of the state as the Jan. 28 storm. "People heeded the warnings and stayed off the roads, and schools closed," Bentley said.

One change that was made between the last storm and this week's round of winter weather was the state got National Guard wrecker crews out earlier, and had five crews stationed in north Alabama.

The statistics back up the governor's comments. Last time, 11,000 students spent the night in their schools. None did this time. State troopers reported 10 weather-related traffic fatalities in January and none this time. Birmingham highways were blocked by abandoned vehicles in the first storm, but not this time.

Republican Sen. Paul Bussman, of Cullman, said the governor's emergency preparations worked well this week. "We got 10 inches of snow and we are doing fine," he said.

In northeast Alabama, Israel Partridge and two friends took a snow day for fun. The three were using ropes to rappel into Little River Canyon, which was shimmering white.

"It's rare to get this much ice and snow, even at a canyon like this," said Partridge, of Fort Payne. "We're 683 feet above the river, and it's just beautiful."

The National Weather Service said the Jackson County town of Pisgah, located atop Sand Mountain in northeast Alabama, received about 8.5 inches of snow by early Thursday. Parts of metro Huntsville got 7 inches, and 6 inches fell in Albertville and Cherokee.

Accumulations of 4 to 5 inches of snow were common as far south as metro Birmingham.

The weather service said some spots in northeast Alabama got about a foot of snow over two days. That approached snowfall totals from the blizzard that shut down much of the same area for days in 1993.

The snowfall totals were greater than the ones from two weeks ago, when thousands of people were stranded in schools, cars and businesses in central Alabama, but problems were fewer. Faulkner said timing, better forecasting and preparation helped the state avoid a repeat of January.

Many difficulties were avoided because the worst of the frozen precipitation fell late Wednesday and early Thursday instead of during the middle of the day, and both individuals and government agencies were ready.

Last time, unexpectedly heavy snow fell in metro Birmingham, trapping people in the middle of the day. Forecasters got the winter storm predictions right this time, and mass closings allowed people to remain at home.

"Certainly it helps when the weather cooperates with the forecast," Faulkner said.


Associated Press writer Phillip Rawls contributed to this report.

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