The group had been to a forestry conference in Panama City, Fla., and was on its way back to Huntsville last Tuesday when the snowfall began. At mid-morning, when the roads became too slick to drive, they were stranded on U.S. 280 near Sylacauga Nissan.
Forestry advisor Dr. Kozma Naka told a Huntsville TV station that the experience was frustrating because radio stations weren’t telling stranded travelers where to go.
“We saw accidents, cars abandoned on the side of the road, trucks jackknifed. The worst thing was, we didn’t know where to go,” Naka told WAFF-TV in Huntsville. “They were telling us what to do, but not where to go.”
Naka said he was disappointed in radio broadcasts that didn’t say where shelters were located and referred listeners to websites they couldn’t visit while trying to navigate icy roads.
“Broadcast radio is the only thing that will help people in cars,” he said, pointing out that smart phones can lose power or cellular services. He said the broadcasts he heard in parts of Alabama didn’t give clear directions to shelters, gave phone numbers too fast or without area codes, and mentioned local street names or landmarks that the wasn’t familiar with.
“We passed a Home Depot stores, and didn’t learn until later that they were open to people who were stranded.”
Naka gave rave reviews to the “super southern hospitality” he and his students received in the Childersburg shelter, and said the new friends he made there were a positive outcome from a difficult situation.
One of the students had a connection in Childersburg who was able to connect them to the shelter at the recreation center.
Childersburg Parks and Recreation director Howard Smith said the center hasn’t always been an emergency shelter, and he wants people around the area to know that the recreation department is working with the American Red Cross and the Talladega County Emergency Management Agency, and is now providing emergency shelter when needed.
“We’re in contact with the EMA and the Red Cross,” Smith said. The city of Childersburg had cots available already, and the EMA delivered blankets.”
Activities and program director Tova Lee said the Red Cross provides comfort kits, which include a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and a razor. She’s seeking donations of towels and washcloths before the next time the shelter is needed.
Smith said the shelter opened at 4 p.m. last Tuesday, and 17 people showed up. Two left without spending the night. Smith said they were Central Alabama Community College students whose parents later picked them up.
“The Police Department had told us about road closings, and we realized there would be people stranded,” Smith said. “We let EMA know we would be open.
“We went and got supplies before the grocery stores closed. We fed them soup for two meals, spaghetti for one meal, and breakfast twice,” Smith said.
They also provided coffee, hot chocolate and soft drinks, and fed emergency responders who visited, as well.
Lee said the stranded travelers passed the hours watching weather reports on TV, playing cards, playing basketball and working out.
“They pitched in and helped clean the place up the second day,” Smith said.
The Alabama A&M group left Thursday at about 11 a.m., and were safe at home in Huntsville that afternoon by 2. “They called to let us know they were OK,” Smith said.
Smith expressed thanks to the Childersburg Water Works, Sewer and Gas Board for checking in during the ice storm, and also the Childersburg Police, Fire and Street departments for the work they did to keep people safe during the frigid weather.
Contact Bill Kimber at firstname.lastname@example.org.