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Surprise storm closes roads and schools, cuts power, and snow just keeps falling

December 2017 Snow

Snowy scenes on Noble St. in Anniston. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Northeast Alabama awoke Friday to a winter storm much worse than had been predicted, with snow blanketing the ground, slushing roads and continuing to fall throughout the day.

Rain-bearing clouds to the south shifted northward into cold air overnight, intensifying meteorologists’ snow projections for the storm. That snow knocked out power for thousands in the area.

More than 5,000 Alabama Power customers in Calhoun County remained without electricity just after 4 p.m., according to a spokeswoman for the company’s Eastern Division. As many as 15,600 in the company's eastern division had been without electricity earlier in the day.

Jacki Lowry wrote by text message that more than 3,700 of those remaining customers without power were in Anniston, while another 1,500 were in Jacksonville.

“Crews have been out all day and will be working into the night to restore power as quickly and safely as possible,” Lowry wrote. Some customers might not have service restored until sometime Saturday, she said.

Temperatures below freezing made driving hazardous in some areas and restricted movement, she said, which made power restoration slow.

Snow was expected, said Mark Rose, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Calera — just not quite as much as began falling Friday morning, the surprise due to the shift in a water-laden weather system.

“Originally we thought this was all going to be down near Montgomery,” Rose said.

When weather models changed, “that’s when we started getting more concerned,” Rose said by phone Friday. The service’s meteorologists just after 3 a.m. issued a winter storm warning for much of the region.

By midday Friday, the service had reports of as many as 4.5 inches down in Shelby County, according to its Twitter account. Locally, the Anniston area had seen between 4.5 and 5 inches, a meteorologist said. It was still falling steadily then, but was expected to stop by early evening.

Locales in the storm warning area — which stretched from Demopolis in the southwest of the state and Anniston in the northeast — were initially forecast to receive anywhere from 2 to 5 inches of snow, Rose said.

He and other weather scientists were concerned that with temperatures set to drop into the mid 20s Friday night, any precipitation left on the ground will freeze.

“We could see some travel problems later tonight and in the morning,” said Rose.

However, temperatures on Saturday were expected to climb into the mid 40s, he said. Plenty of sunshine is also expected.

“Once we get through 9 a.m. tomorrow, things should be a lot better,” the meteorologist said.

Closings and cancellations

Local schools swiftly canceled classes Friday morning as the forecast for snow ramped up.

Government offices across the county had been closed, a Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency official said.

Calhoun County’s administration offices were closed, as were those in Anniston, Oxford, Jacksonville, and Piedmont, Myles Chamblee said. Ohatchee’s Town Hall was set to close at 10 a.m., he said.

Roads, meanwhile, were closed in Anniston, Oxford, Jacksonville, and Piedmont, Chamblee said, with widespread reports of car wrecks.

“There’s not really any one specific location,” he said. “It’s kind of sporadic.”

County roads remained open. “Drive with caution,” Chamblee said.

The emergency management agency had not received any reports of strandings or power outages as of just before 10 a.m. Friday, he said.

Gov. Kay Ivey’s spokesman Daniel Sparkman said in an email to The Star that due to the weather hazards, Ivey had given all agency directors in the impacted areas discretion to close offices early today to allow state employees the safest commute home.

Reached by phone Friday morning, Alabama Emergency Management director Brian Hastings said his main concern was roads icing over Friday night.

“A large portion of Alabama is gonna freeze over tonight, and that means freezing road conditions,” he said.

Hastings said officials hope the band of snow will move into Georgia long enough to give transportation officials a few hours to make major roads safe to drive. Rural, less-traveled roads will likely be dangerous to drive on, according to the director.

Hastings advised residents to get home before sunset Friday and stay off the roads until mid-morning Saturday.

The director said the cloud cover that comes with snow provides a measure of insulation, and when the skies clear up, temperatures drop quickly.

“It’s almost like a blanket being pulled; that’s what’s going to make this evening’s threat,” he said.

Hastings said a swath of Alabama from Choctaw County to Cherokee County would see those subfreezing temperatures in the evening.

He advised residents to visits to keep track of road conditions.

Road closures

Local governments across much of northeastern Alabama Friday morning closed roads, hoping to avoid any more vehicle wrecks, officials said.

Anniston police Chief Shane Denham said there was a debate in his city about closing the roads.

“I called the interim city manager and told him we needed to do it,” the chief said. “We’ve responded to too many vehicle wrecks already.”

Denham acknowledged that despite roads being closed, people will be out driving.

“This doesn’t keep people off the roads but it does let businesses know it’s not safe for their employees to come in,” he said. “It also lets hospitals know to put their emergency plans in place.”

Denham said Quintard Avenue at 22nd Street was backed up Friday morning with vehicles unable to get up the short incline in the northbound lanes.

“We started diverting traffic off Quintard onto Noble or Wilmer in hopes of avoiding a backup,” he said. “It still happened.”

The chief said his officers were also in emergency operations.

“I’ve pulled all my officers back to the Police Department and we’re only responding to essential calls,” the chief said. “We’re not writing wreck reports today. If someone gets in dire straits and in trouble, we will be there to help them out.”

In Oxford, city roads were also closed, police Chief Bill Partridge said.

“We’ve had a few vehicle wrecks but not may,” he said. “We were hoping to curb that.”

Partridge said if people need to be on the roads, they should stick to main thoroughfares whenever possible.

“It’s the secondary roads that don’t get traveled as much that are the problem,” he said. “Also, be very cautious on bridges and overpasses.”

Jacksonville police Chief Tommy Thompson said roads were also closed in his city.

“It doesn’t look like it’s going to let up anytime soon so we’ve elected to close the roads,” he said. “All our lights will be set to flash so hopefully people won’t have to stop on the hills.”

Thompson said his officers had not responded to many wrecks but said there was one on Alabama 21 just south of the city limits that state troopers would respond to.

“One officer came to the door and said someone flipped a car on 21,” the chief said. “The driver is fine but they were going too fast, slid off the road into a ditch and flipped the car.”

Piedmont police Chief Freddie Norton said all city-maintained roads in Piedmont are also closed.

“We have not had any vehicle accidents,” he said. “Let’s hope it stays that way.”

Heflin police Chief A.J. Benefield said roads there were getting slushy, and that bridges, overpasses and shaded areas were getting slick. Wrecks were beginning to happen.  Benefield stressed that people should stay off the roads unless they must be out.

Just after 9 a.m. Benefield said the roads were not officially closed but that may change as conditions deteriorate.  Benefield said the police department is currently working four weather related auto accidents.

Cleburne County administrator and director of emergency management Steve Swafford said that there had been a few minor accidents on the county roads related to the snowfall. Swafford said officials would monitor the situation. The biggest concern, he said, was how the roadways would improve or deteriorate before nightfall.

Swafford said all county offices were open but all schools were closed. Swafford said that all county roads remained open with the biggest problem being slush.

Staff writers Kirsten Fiscus, Daniel Gaddy, Patrick McCreless, Zach Tyler and Bill Wilson contributed reporting.