Jeff Adams of Sylacauga pulled out of his driveway around 5:10 a.m. on Jan. 28, headed to his first classes of the semester at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham.
“It was just going to be a normal day,” Adams said. “We knew the weather had reported snow for South Alabama, so I wasn’t thinking about snow, like everybody else.”
Adams went to his morning classes and was studying before his next class when he saw a student around 11:15 a.m. covered in snow and realized something was amiss.
“I figured if I left then, I would get home,” he said. “But I soon realized there were hundreds of other people trying to leave at the same time.”
It took Adams hours to reach U.S. 280, and then, he had to head west because the eastbound lanes were not accessible. Six hours and eight unsuccessful hotel stops later, Adams pulled up to a Hampton Inn in Leeds that was allowing stranded motorists to stay in the lobby. Later in the night, area churches began to open warming stations, and Adams made it to Cedar Grove Baptist Church, where he said church volunteers offered food, coffee and entertainment.
“Me and a few other couples there all formed a quick friendship and said if we do leave, we’ll leave together,” he said. “We left Wednesday morning around 11:30 and made a caravan to Pell City. Then I made the trek from Pell City to Sylacauga by myself, and by the Lord’s hand, I was able to get home without any problems.”
Adams said the event brought out the best and the worst in people.
“The spirits were pretty high throughout the day,” he said. “I saw a lot of people really helping out other folks, but then I saw a lot of people who were just all about themselves.”
He said the experience taught him “when you’re willing to put yourself last – to give a seat up, go get a cup of coffee, share a story of encouragement – you can warm the heart of somebody else.”
Many people from other cities found themselves in the same situation as Adams, only they were stranded in Sylacauga.
A warming station set up at First Baptist Church served 73 people Tuesday and Wednesday, with the last stranded motorists leaving by 11 a.m. on Thursday. A shelter in Childersburg served 15.
On Thursday afternoon, three homeless people were all that remained at the Sylacauga shelter, according to FBC minister of education and administration Larry Morrison.
“Some of the folks here were from our community, but just couldn’t get over Merkle Mountain or Heards Gap to get home,” Morrison said. “Others were from Indiana, South Georgia, Helena, McCalla, Hoover. There were a couple families with small children, and one little boy even celebrated his birthday at the shelter Tuesday.”
Morrison said it took cooperation from many agencies to bring the shelter together.
“We didn’t have any problems,” he said. “We had cooperation from the community, police department, mayor’s office, the Coosa Valley Ministerial Association, Talladega County EMA and Red Cross. Motels and other businesses directed people here and helped folks get away from (U.S. 280) and (Alabama Highway 21) and get to the shelter. It was a community-wide effort, so we appreciate everybody cooperating and working together to meet the needs of those that were stranded.”
Volunteers fed those at the shelter and provided cots and other basic amenities during their two-day stay.
“It was amazing,” Morrison said. “You’re stranded and you don’t know any of the folks in the room, and you all have that one thing in common, and there was a lot of interaction and fun and new friendships. It actually was a marvelous experience.”
Police Chief Chris Carden said other Good Samaritans helped police and fire personnel carry many people to safety.
“The fire and police departments worked extremely well together during the week,” Carden said. “We had our two Humvees out transporting people who were stuck to shelter, but we had trouble accessing some places with them because they’re so wide. Thankfully, there were a lot of citizens that came to the aid of emergency services by using 4-wheelers and other ATVs. A particular group shuttled people over Heards Gap on (Alabama 21 North) to the Humvees to get them to the warming shelter. It was amazing. It really was awesome to see everybody work together.”
Carden said there were extra emergency personnel on staff, and the street department also worked through the snow and ice to sand as many streets as possible.
“The street department staff are the unsung heroes, because they were working around the clock like we were,” he said. “It was an incredible effort by so many people, and the citizens that helped – I didn’t get to thank everybody, but I don’t know that we could have gotten to those people without them.”
Motorists are advised to continue to drive with caution today, Carden said. School will resume Monday.