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April 18, 2014

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Alabama highway jammed as snow storm crosses South

CULLMAN, Ala. — Hundreds of people spent a cold night trapped on Interstate 65 in central Alabama as a winter storm dumped snow around the Southeast and caused at least one death in Mississippi.

The motorists got stuck on the interstate in Cullman County in north Alabama after the snow caused a series of wrecks Thursday on the hilly stretch, where inclines became slippery. One of those trapped was lawyer Bob Bentley, who said he spent 14 hours stuck near Cullman before he could get away at 4:00 a.m.

"I played a lot of 'Words with Friends.' I found some old food under the seat, some old Christmas pretzels. I listened to all the NPR programs twice," Bentley said. "It was awful. It was tedious."

Bentley said people just turned off their cars and sat there since there wasn't anywhere to go. He said people were getting out of their vehicles, building snowmen and walking over to the edge of the woods to relieve themselves.

Hundreds of cars and 18-wheelers were still stuck on the highway as Friday dawned, county emergency management director Phyllis Little said. The highway reopened in both directions by 9:30 a.m., Alabama state troopers said, but it would take time for traffic to move freely again because of the size of the blockage.

The backup began Thursday afternoon as a winter storm blanketed the area with as much as 4 inches of snow. The jam was made all the worse by drivers who got on the interstate despite the backup, Little said.

"Even with the interstate backed up as far as you could see people were still trying to get on it," she said. "Troopers were flashing their lights at people to stop them, and they finally closed exit 310 to keep them off."

Little said 120 motorists made it to a shelter in Cullman, but many more couldn't.

Cindy Parker, who works at a Shell gasoline station just off I-65 in Cullman, said a steady stream of frustrated motorists stopped at the store to buy food, get directions and vent.

"Weather like this is so unusual for us they don't realize that the hills and bridges between Birmingham and Huntsville will get so icy," she said.

Skies were sunny and temperatures in the 40s by midday Friday. The highway was flowing freely without backups, but abandoned and wrecked cars littered the roadsides.

In Virginia, the areas hardest hit Thursday and Friday were in the southwest, where the National Weather Service says 13 inches were reported in Giles County, while Grayson County and the Galax area received about a foot.

Road crews in that part of the state were out in force early Friday to plow and treat roads. Hardest hit was Interstate 77. The highway still had snow cover and there were reports of disabled vehicles along the roadway.

While the winter storm wasn't as severe as initially feared, icy roads remained a concern Friday morning and some school systems decided to open late.

Parts of Mississippi saw 2 to 4 inches of snow on the ground Thursday. In Lowndes County, Highway Patrol spokesman Cpl. Criss Turnipseed said Johnnie A. Matthews, 64, of West Point died when his car collided with a downed tree about 5 a.m. on Mississippi Highway 50.

Turnipseed says the large pine tree in the roadway appeared to have been uprooted by wind and ground saturation due to excessive rainfall. The winter blitz follows days of heavy rain across much of the Southeast.

No other fatalities were reported but thousands lost power.

Virginia State Police say they were swamped with calls at the height of the storm. Dispatchers fielded more than 760 calls reporting crashes and disabled vehicles.

In Alabama, scores of schools, businesses and government offices as far south as metro Birmingham pushed back their opening times for Friday because of the threat of icy roads after freezing temperatures overnight.

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