Deep South grapples with yet another winter storm

People across the Deep South hunkered down Tuesday as yet another frigid winter storm blanketed the region in snow, sleet and ice, shutting down interstates, canceling flights and prompting officials to close schools and government offices.

Before dawn, flurries of snow fell across parts of Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee, causing traffic pileups and the termination of thousands of flights. In Houston, nearly 800 flights were canceled at George Bush Intercontinental Airport — more than half of the airport’s daily schedule. In Atlanta, more than 250 flights were canceled at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The National Weather Service issued a gust of winter weather warnings and advisories across a vast swath of the U.S. from Texas to Massachusetts.

In Houston, city officials activated their emergency operations center and started referring residents to several churches converted into “warming centers.” By afternoon, one church was already filed with 100 people, said Michael Walter, an emergency operations spokesman.


“We’re not like Philadelphia or New York who deal with this regularly. We have limited resources,” Walter said.

No deaths had been reported, but Walter said officials were concerned about the homeless and those still rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey.

“There are still homes that have drywall missing, insulation missing, people who may not have working heaters,” Walter said.

The temperature fell below freezing Tuesday in Houston.
(David J. Phillip / Associated Press )

Even a light snowstorm can generate panic across the Southeast. Four years ago, just 2 inches of snow led to “Snowmageddon” in Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., as traffic gridlock prevented plows and salt trucks from clearing roads and interstates. Thousands of students were stranded in schools and motorists were stuck on icy highways overnight.

Already this winter, the Southeast has endured several bouts of frigid weather. In early December, a storm dumped snow as far south as Brownsville, Texas, and parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the southern Appalachians.

Two weeks ago, another winter storm scattered snow as far south as Tallahassee, Fla.

“It’s been a cold winter,” said Keith Stellman, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Atlanta/Peachtree City, noting that Wednesday’s likely high temperature — 28 or 29 degrees — was about 20 degrees below normal.

Forecasters did not predict a heavy snowfall — up to 2 inches in Alabama, where Gov. Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. Dozens of school systems across the state closed, and businesses and government offices shut down in preparation for the storm.

“This winter storm could be debilitating to the state for a couple of days due to icy conditions,” Brian Hastings, director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, said in a statement. He urged Alabamians to closely monitor weather forecasts and get off roads before the first flakes of snow touched the ground.

By noon, officials in Limestone County, just east of Huntsville in northern Alabama, reported that all roads — apart from those in the city of Athens — were impassable.

Residents were not used to driving in such treacherous conditions, said Daphne Ellison, an emergency management officer in Limestone County, noting the weather had caused multiple traffic pileups and accidents.

“Oh, my goodness, people just sliding off the roads,” she said. “You know how it is. People don’t know how to slow down. They’re just not paying attention.”

Oh, my goodness, people just sliding off the roads.

Daphne Ellison, emergency management officer in Alabama

Ellison, expressing frustration that people insisted on driving, added, “It’s rough out there. We’re not used to 6-degree weather, but I think people get cabin fever and don’t want to stay in the house.”

In Louisiana, the National Weather Service in New Orleans/Baton Rouge expanded its winter weather advisory Tuesday to include locations as far southeast as Houma and metro New Orleans. In the Shreveport area, both lanes of Interstate 49 were closed early Tuesday. In Kentucky, all southbound lanes of Interstate 65 were closed Tuesday morning after multiple people were injured in a collision involving a Greyhound bus, two commercial vehicles and two passenger vehicles.

In Texas, the weather was so cold that Gov. Greg Abbott postponed an event in Arlington to announce his plan to rein in rising property taxes in the state. In a statement, he warned of “life-threatening situations,” and added, “I urge all Texans to exercise extreme caution in these hazardous conditions.”

Conservationists sprang to the aid of sea turtles in frozen waters off the Texas coast, said Melissa Angel, a spokeswoman for the Turtle Island Restoration Network. The California-based nonprofit has an office in Galveston, and volunteers already helped rescue about 2,500 turtles during a cold snap earlier this month.

“Most of these turtles have probably left the bay, but there are probably some out there,” said Joanie Steinhaus, the group’s Gulf of Mexico program director. “It’s pretty raw conditions.”

Tuesday’s storm was particularly challenging for areas of southeast Texas still recovering from Hurricane Harvey in August.

Houston’s Zoo was closed but prepared for the storm, a spokeswoman said.

“The zoo animals are safe and secure in their warm night houses and barns,” spokeswoman Jackie Wallace said. “Where necessary, extra hay for bedding is given to the animals, and in some areas, the facilities are wrapped to give additional insulation.”

Special correspondent Jarvie reported from Atlanta. Times staff writer Hennessy-Fiske reported from Pecos, Texas.