EMA reviews actions during winter storm
by Will Heath
Feb 05, 2014 | 748 views |  0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
"A light dusting."

It is the operative phrase that people around St. Clair County – and the South – will use to describe the events of Jan. 28, 2014, for years to come.

The winter weather event that caused roads to freeze up and stranded motorists along every major roadway in central Alabama began as snow flurries around 9 a.m.

It was only then, according to St. Clair County Emergency Management officials, that the danger hit home.

"At 9:01 a.m. on Jan. 28, a Winter Weather Advisory was issued for our area," said EMA planner Bryan Schaefers. "That's when the fun began."

By 10 a.m., Schaefers said ice was already forming on the roads.

"Our parking lot (in Pell City) was already pretty slick," he said. "It hit so rapidly."

The event – named Winter Storm Leon – eventually resulted in thousands of people stranded along both interstates and every other highway in the area. Travelers slept in their cars, or abandoned them to seek shelter and warmth in local businesses, churches or other public places.

State officials attributed 5 casualties to the storm, and 54 injuries.

County officials from every municipality and government agency – as well as from the Red Cross, St. Vincent's St. Clair, Regional Paramedic Services, both newspapers for St. Clair County and WFHK radio – attended a meeting Tuesday to review the county's actions during the storm.

"We're not here to point fingers," EMA director Ellen Tanner said. "We're not going to blame the National Weather Service. The fact is, they didn't predict what happened. They are experts in tornadoes, but not snow."

Undersheriff Billy Murray said the two biggest issues were "communication and transportation," particularly when the volume of the cellular use in the area made mobile use difficult.

"It just came on so quick," he said. "You don't realize how much you depend on your phone until you don't have them."

Four Red Cross shelters were open across the county, but Tanner said most took refuge in "impromptu shelters" provided by local businesses or even homeowners.

"What worked for us (at the shelters) was the cooperation of the people there," said Jerry Mortz, a volunteer coordinator from the Red Cross. "If I showed up with a load of cots, there were people there to unload them. People took care of their own."

Patrice Kurzejeski, assistant director for the EMA, said she shared information about the emergency through social media "until my hands cramped up." Tanner said answering questions through Facebook is no different than fielding calls from concerned residents.

"Just be careful with any information you share with us (at the EMA)," she said. "We are giving that information out to the public."

Commission Chairman Stan Batemon also shared photos from the road, to help illustrate the conditions.

"If you're a public official and you don't text or use social media, you need to learn how," he said. "It's critical we get credible information out to people."

Tanner also commended WFHK, which stayed on the air through Tuesday and Wednesday to help distribute information. Owner Adam Stocks said that the station now reaches most of the county, and will soon broadcast all the way from Birmingham to Anniston.

"Use us as a tool," Stocks said. "We can reach the entire county now."

Batemon also said he would propose to the Commission that money be set aside to address some of the concerns raised in Tuesday's meeting.

"I know a lot of our municipalities are stressed for money," he said. "Don't let those things hold you back. Your county can work out ways to help, if need be."

Commission chairman pro tem Paul Manning commended everyone for the cooperative effort.

"It was great to have the opportunity to view each entity working together," Manning said. "Everybody had a heart to help each other, and that was a blessing."

Contact Will Heath at wheath@thestclairtimes.com.