published Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Surprise snowfall a blessing to some Chattanooga companies, a curse to others

SNOW BIZ BY THE NUMBERS

186 - filled rooms at Double Tree by Hilton Hotel in downtown Chattanooga

132 - car accidents within Chattanooga city limits

45 - minutes to wait for a Jimmy John’s delivery

17 - vehicles in a Cleveland pile-up

5 - hours to wait for a Yates tow truck

5 - hours of snowfall on Tuesday

1 - Tow truck involved in crash while trying to render towing services

Source: Company reports

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    Snow slows traffic on Interstate 24 entering Chattanooga Tuesday, causing many commuters to book hotels Tuesday night.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
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Businesses are opening late today after a surprise snowfall paralyzed the region Tuesday and forced companies to dig in, send employees home or deal with a huge influx of customers.

Shoppers will have to wait until lunch to visit Hamilton Place mall and Northgate Mall, which are opening at noon today after closing at 5 p.m. Tuesday, said spokeswoman Catharine Wells. A handful of area manufacturers canceled their second and third shifts Tuesday night — including Alstom, Chattem, Astec Industries and La-Z-Boy.

Volkswagen went a step further and canceled today’s first shift of workers as well, citing supply chain problems related to snowy weather in the Southeast. And at Chattanooga Airport, Delta Airlines canceled all its flights late Tuesday morning, and American Eagle’s nonstop to Chicago was canceled.

BlueCross BlueShield will open at 10 a.m. today — two hours later than normal — after the company sent its 3,000 employees home at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, spokeswoman Mary Danielson said. Some BlueCross employees — Danielson wasn’t sure how many — had already called it a day before noon Tuesday in order to pick up children after most area school systems closed early.

“We do have a large percentage of our population who are female and based on everything we read, women are often the primary care givers to their children, so you’d make an assumption it was a good percentage,” she said.

Most parents without other childcare options used vacation time to take the afternoon off after schools closed. But slippery roads and snarled traffic made driving dangerous.

“After sliding through intersections and landing in the ditch, I’m finally home now, waiting on [the] Walker County bus to drop my kids off,” Jackie Smith Knight wrote on the Times Free Press Facebook page.

DIGGING IN

Not all businesses opted to close shop Tuesday. In Collegedale, Little Debbie cake-maker McKee Foods operated as usual, spokesman Mike Gloekler said.

“We stay open and operating as long as we have water and power,” he said. “We let our employees make a decision on their own whether it is safe to come in.”

Chattanooga-based U.S. Xpress, a national logistics and trucking company, placed headquarters employees into hotels on Tuesday to ensure that there are enough workers on hand to staff the company’s operations and dispatch center.

“We have 24/7 shifts, so we’re working to try to identify who’s going to be able to come in,” said Eric Fuller, chief operations officer for U.S. Xpress.

But the company’s truck drivers, who often find themselves driving through snow in the Midwest, Northeast and Pacific Northwest United States, Tuesday’s snowstorm wasn’t abnormal.

“We really deal with this on a regular basis in the winter,” Fuller said. “It’s more of a local problem.”

The major differences this time are the panicked reaction from passenger vehicle drivers and the lack of snow plows and salt trucks in some Alabama and Georgia counties, he said.

“They probably get more snow in the Northeast, but there are more issues in the Southeast due to a lack of equipment on the roads,” he said.

HOTELS SWAMPED

Tuesday’s snow clouds at least had a silver lining for some downtown Chattanooga industries. For hotels, the sudden snow brought an influx of refugees from white roads and their crawling congestion. Four major downtown hotels — the Hampton Inn & Suites, the Hilton Garden Inn, The Courtyard by Marriott and the DoubleTree by Hilton — were completely sold out by Tuesday evening.

Others, like the Read House, were close to full and expected to sell out.

Megan Sorenson, front desk agent at downtown’s Double Tree by Hilton Hotel, said the hotel sold out just after noon on Tuesday. Many of Tuesday’s customers were staying for business Monday night and just decided to stay over again Tuesday, partly because getting out of town would have been a nightmare, she said.

“We were at 75 percent [capacity] last night, and we’re at 100 percent now,” she said. The hotel has 186 rooms.

Sorenson said some people were walking in off the street, frustrated with conditions on Interstates 24 and 75, and U.S. Highway 27 — all of which sat almost still much of the day.

Spencer Carroll, front desk supervisor at the Sheraton Read House, said things were similar there Tuesday afternoon.

“We’re seeing a lot of stay-overs, plus I’m seeing a lot of guests that this was as far as they could make it, so they’re just staying here tonight,” he said.

Across town, Tracy Lantz also answered an on-going stream of calls, at La Quinta Inn on 21st Street.

“I just got eight or nine phone calls back-to-back. They’re lighting up the switchboard,” she said.

Located near Interstate 24, La Quinta Inn also had drivers who gave up on leaving town and who came in straight off the freeway.

Some guests even left the hotel, saw traffic conditions and turned around to check back in for another night.

WAIT FOR WRECKING SERVICES

Doug Yates, co-owner of Doug Yates Towing and Recovery LLC, picked up a lot of business Tuesday, but at the expense of trying to send wreckers out in what he called “just a total nightmare.”

Heavy congestion made it impossible for trucks to reach callers, whether they were stranded off of slick roads or part of several crashes which peppered the area. Yates said Tuesday afternoon that it was taking over an hour for his trucks to travel a mile in Chattanooga.

“We can’t get anywhere,” he said. “We can’t do anything.”

Like hotels in town, the wrecking service’s phone lines were alive with callers Tuesday.

Yates said the average wait time around 3 p.m. for one of his trucks was up to five hours.

“There are so many people on the roads, you just can’t go anywhere,” he said.

He hoped evening would bring some relief to the chaos and allow his drivers to get caught up.

“We’re just waiting for people to get home and get off the road,” he said. “We’ll work all night.”

Staff writers Ellis Smith and Mike Pare contributed to this report. Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480. Contact staff writer Shellly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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about Alex Green...

Alex Green joined the Times Free Press staff full-time in January 2014 after completing the paper's six-month, general assignment reporter internship. Alex grew up in Dayton, Tenn., which is also where he studied journalism at Bryan College. He graduated from Rhea County High School in 2008. During college, Alex covered the city of Graysville and the town of Spring City for The Herald-News. As editor-in-chief of Bryan College's student news group, Triangle, Alex reported on ...

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