It was a long night for Alabama motorists, first responders, and for the state emergency managers who coordinated rescue and relief efforts following Alabama’s unexpected monster snowstorm. The icy weather paralyzed roads and highways across the State, and the Alabama Department of Transportation is working to restore traffic. Motorists are warned to remain off the roads if possible to avoid the threat of ice. Alabama Public Radio’s Pat Duggins spoke with Tony Harris of Alabama DOT about the “day after the storm.”
Pat Duggins: The big snow was yesterday. How has the situation changed? What’s the challenge today, as opposed to yesterday?
Tony: Well, I think right now it’s a matter of time and weather conditions. We’re in the same situation as our sister states across the south from Mississippi, up into the Carolinas, where there is a line of freezing temperatures, on top of precipitation, some of that line moves much further north, and was worse than we thought. You know, the original forecast, thirty-six hours ago, didn’t really call for Birmingham to be a problem, and we’ve had problems along the line from Jackson, MS up into the Carolinas further north than was anticipated thirty-six hours ago. So that’s been a challenge.
Pat: The general warning was from motors to stay off the roads, if they could, until maybe noon today. Does that still apply? Or did that change at all?
Tony: I think they key message is that we won’t people to hear is roadways remain hazardous around the state, and they should remain off the roadways until conditions improve, and that is the definition of conditions improving could vary from one place to another around the state.
Pat: From your perspective, the stories overnight of people being stranded in their cars, that sort of thing, how bad, from your perspective, was it?
Tony: Certainly the conditions developed in Alabama and other states across the south, in a way we didn’t really expect, in a way that wasn’t forecast, frankly. The line of precipitation was further north than anyone anticipated, based on forecast, thirty-six, forty-eight hours ago. And it resulted in sort of a closers on the fly, if you will, that weren’t anticipated, and that caused main routes to be flooded with traffic at a time when road conditions deteriorated. And so from Central Mississippi across Alabama throughout the Atlantic area and beyond, we’ve seen people across the south stranded on interstates and many instances, local EMA officials have gotten in there and helped get them to warming centers and shelters. Many of them just found their own accommodations, but we’re doing cleanup today on the interstates and it’s been a big response, but I think it’s been handled about as well as could be.
Pat: A lot of attention has been paid to the volunteer rescuers. A couple of Facebook pages that came up, that sort of thing, have you heard anything about that? Has it been a help, a hindrance, or what?
Tony: Governor Bentley and his comments to the state yesterday, talked about the spirits of volunteerism and people of Alabama taking care of each other, and I think his prediction that that would happen was right on, was spot on. I think people of Alabama deserve a lot of credit. I know there are people who have been stranded, and that’s very trying, and it’s a hardship. Local EMA officials have responded all the way down to random citizens who have just stepped in to help as well.
Pat: What should people be doing, right now?
Tony: I think that they should remember that roadways remain hazardous and they should avoid travel if they can. They should coordinate with their employers, their schools to stay abreast of the latest information and stay tuned to local news media for information. I think those are the things we need to do right now. And as the Governor said yesterday, in his comments, check in on your neighbors and take care of each other.
Pat: Terrific, Tony, and as we wrap up here, I know this is very early to start talking about revisions, and soul searching, but has any comments at all been made around your office about the next time this happens we need to do what?
Tony: Anytime we have a state of emergency, whether it is a tornado outbreak or a hurricane evacuation or ice storm, ALDOT, DPS, State EMA, local EMA, we all debrief and we look for problems that we can iron out. We seek those lessons that we can learn. We identify the things that went well that we need to be sure we don’t lose sight of. That part of the process is very routine for us, so we’ll do those same things.