Surprise snow shuts down the town

By Donna Thornton/News Editor

Guests gathered in the breakfast area at the Hampton Inn on Thursday morning, enjoying hot cups of coffee and pondering the prospects of finally getting to their homes.

“I’m getting to Jacksonville today,” Rebecca Duke vowed.

Duke, curator at the Gadsden Museum of Art, couldn’t make it home to Jacksonville when the unexpected snow arrived earlier this week, and had made the Hampton Inn a temporary home.

She wasn’t the only one. Assistant Manager Karla Rivera said the hotel was full by 1 p.m. Tuesday.

Some guests were expecting to leave Thursday, she said, and the hotel staff was trying to make arrangements to help some who needed to get out of Gadsden.

Some guests had flights to make later, she said, and they were trying to get those guests closer to the Birmingham Airport.

The guests were not the only ones making an unexpected stay.

“The breakfast lady got here at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday and I got here at 7 a.m., and we haven’t left,” Rivera said.

People who were supposed to relieve the staff couldn’t get in, and Rivera said when her shift ended at 3 p.m. Tuesday, she knew she’d never make it over the Southside bridge even to get a change of clothes.

“We have to have a weather plan whenever there’s a possibility of something like this,” Rivera said, “because we don’t close. We have to have people here.” This time, however, the forecasts didn’t hint that a weather plan would be needed.

“We were supposed to get a dusting,” Rivera said.

Hampton Inn, like most hotels, find themselves busy when bad weather events occur, such as tornadoes. If people have damage to home or lose power for an extended period of time, they look for a place to stay.

And the Hampton Inn was accommodating, as were the guests who found themselves staying away from home without preparation. Duke said she’d made a lot of new friends.

“All things considered, it’s been fun,” Duke said.

By now, after forecasts of temperatures in the 40s and 50s for Thursday and Friday (Jan. 31), things should be getting back to normal, after a weather event that virtually shut down much of Etowah and surrounding counties for a couple of days.

Weather forecasts predicted snow accumulations south of Birmingham, but the snow decided to head further north. A couple of inches of snow blanketed the area quickly, leaving motorists stranded on roadways and students stranded at school after classes were let out early.

Schools were released at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, but road conditions already were treacherous in some areas. Many parents could not make it to schools by the release time to get children, and some were not able to reach schools at all.

The Etowah County Sheriff’s Office personnel used its armored vehicle to take some students home from West End High School and municipal police departments helped to get students home from county schools in their area.

Etowah County Schools Superintendent Dr. Alan Cosby said all county school students were home by 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

All school systems within the county cancelled school Wednesday and Thursday, as did Gadsden State Community College. Homecoming activities at Gadsden State, planned for this weekend, were also cancelled.

Roads remained impassible Wednesday morning, according to the Gadsden-Etowah County Emergency Management Agency, though many people were cautiously making there around. Whatever snow melted during the day Wednesday refroze overnight, making conditions icy again Thursday morning before temperatures rose into the low 40s.

Forecasts had predicted a dusting of snow from central Alabama northward, with heavier snow and travel problems expected south of Birmingham. Instead, the snow stormed into the state from Birmingham north as well, catching almost everyone unprepared.

The degree of surprise associated by the change in the winter storm’s path is evident, looking at the Gadsden/Etowah County Emergency Management Agency’s Facebook page.

On Monday the site included this information: “It looks like Etowah County might see a few flurries. Most of the snow that will fall will be south of Birmingham. Be wary of falling temperatures in our area over the next few days.”

Around 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, the expectations hadn’t changed. “Looks like a few flakes might fall in Etowah County, but no accumulation is expected. Temperatures will be well below average, so take necessary precautions and put your winter plan into action!”

By approximately 1 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, the unexpected snow was here in force. “All Etowah County roads have been deemed impassable. Do not drive on county roads unless absolutely necessary,” GECEMA’s Facebook page warned.

A number of people had trouble getting home, or didn’t get home at all Tuesday night.

Kristy Thornton had to be at work at WalMart in Centre at 7 am. Tuesday.

“At that point we still weren’t expected to get too much snow,” Thornton said. “I took my lunch break a little before 11 a.m. and before too long realized that if I was going to make it home to Piedmont to my three little boys, I better leave pretty soon.

“I was so scared because I had already slid in the parking lot three times and once at the red light going out to U.S. 411. I started to think I would be OK,” she said.

“I turned on to Hwy. 9 and it was even worse than U.S. 411. I only made it about tw miles down and ended up sliding into a ditch,” Thornton continued. “There was no way I was going to be able to get it out.”

Fortunately a Piedmont Rescue vehicle was behind Thornton. In fact, their vehicle had to slide around to keep from hitting hers. Then the rescue workers stopped to see if she was OK. After determining that her vehicle was not going anywhere, they offered her a ride home.

“I am so thankful to these two men,” Thornton said. “Had it not been for them, I probably wouldn’t have to made it home to my three little boys.”

According to a post on Etowah County District Attorney Jimmie Harp’s Facebook page, sheriff’s office personnel were checking stranded vehicle throughout the county to see if anyone was inside, and marking checked vehicle with yellow tape so their efforts would not have to be repeated.

“These guys are going a GREAT job,” Harp posted.

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