BIRMINGHAM, AL - Even minor winter storms in the deep South are high-impact events. As such, I have made them a priority to observe/film, reserving some of my chasing funds for trips to these events. January 6-7, 2017 would bring another significant event to this region, so after a long nap, I departed St. Louis late on Thursday night (the 5th). My original plan was to travel down to Jackson, Mississippi for freezing rain that models indicated would be starting sometime after sunrise. However, at 4AM, I encountered a heavier-than-expected band of snow from Memphis, Tennessee through northern Mississippi.
Like most of the South, Mississippi has no de-icing infrastructure, so roads quickly became very slick along I-55. I made an unscheduled stop in Hernando, MS to document this event, spending 3 hours in the area. Within minutes, the interstate traffic slowed to a crawl due to accidents and tractor-trailers stalled out on hills, unable to gain traction. I did not capture any incidents on video in this area.
Slow traffic on icy I-55 near Hernando, Mississippi
After sunrise, I decided to abandon the snow and head south to my original target. However, I was too late. Showers of freezing rain and sleet were already impacting Jackson, more than 2 hours' drive to my south (at normal highway speeds). Not only would I not make it in time, I would encounter icing well before then at Winona, meaning I'd likely encounter jams on the interstate from accidents that already occurred north of Jackson. Even if the highway was not jammed, it would take 4 hours or more to reach Jackson due to having to drive at 35mph or less due to the conditions. As a result, I abandoned the Jackson plan and turned east at Winona on Highway 82.
Most of the precipitation falling in this area was in the form of sleet, which minimized the road impacts. Pure sleet is the least slick of winter precipitation types due to its hard granular nature. Unless it is mixed with freezing rain, it does not form a bond with road surfaces as easily. On Highway 82 between Winona and Starkville/Columbus, there was a light coating of sleet on all road surfaces, with much more on bridges. However, there were no accidents in this area.
As I moved east, more showers of sleet with increasing amounts of freezing rain passed overhead. When I arrived at Starkville, I began seeing more accidents. They were occurring at random locations, even though the bridges were more hazardous. The first round of precipitation, however, was ending in this region. I would need to travel east to the Tuscaloosa/Birmingham areas to position for the more significant second round of sleet/freezing rain that would move in after sunset. Tuscaloosa was right at the freezing mark as I passed through, but I did not observe any icing - neither on objects or the road. Google traffic (a very helpful tool during icing events) showed several jams along highways in the Birmingham area, which suggested there was at least isolated icing there. So, I continued over to Birmingham.
Upon arriving at Birmingham, the temperature was 30 degrees F. I saw indicators that icing had begun (icicles on signs, guardrails and parked cars) but found none on roads. The second round of precip was still a few hours away, so I booked a hotel in the Hoover area and settled in for a nap.
I was awakened after sunset by the loud sound of heavy sleet pellets hitting the air conditioner unit below the room's window. I went back outside, noting a heavy freezing rain/sleet mix. My car was already covered with a shell of sleet and ice, and the parking lot was quickly icing as well. I had to let my car warm up for 10-15 minutes to heat and clear the windows. I went out for several hours looking for road issues, but finding few due to an almost complete lack of traffic. In the South, the public response to well-advertised winter storms like this is usually very good - most people heed the advice and stay home (after buying their bread and milk the day before the storm). Most businesses and restaurants had closed. Upon finding nothing to shoot due to the darkness and lack of traffic, I returned to my hotel and set the alarm for early the next morning.
At 5AM, I awoke, checked out of the hotel and went back out looking for video subjects. The road conditions were considerably worse than I'd seen the night before. The sleet/freezing rain mix had been compacted down by traffic, creating a very slick glaze in most places.
Ice-covered Montgomery Highway in Vestavia Hills, Birmingham
Again, there are no salt trucks in the area, the South simply deals with the icy conditions until the weather warms up again - which usually is within a day or two. Already, I-65 northbound was completely blocked by tractor-trailers which were stuck on a steep hill in Hoover, unable to move.
As the sun came up, I finally found a trouble spot that offered some video subjects on a steep grade in Vestavia Hills. Many cars were getting stuck and/or sliding or spinning on the main road and interchange ramps. A flatbed wrecker truck arrived and also became stuck. The driver exited the truck, and it slid, driverless, backwards into the guardrail.
Vehicles stuck on icy ramp near Brockwood Baptist Medical Center
I returned to the I-65 jam for a few daylight shots, where truckers told me they had been stuck for hours.
Trucks stranded on I-65 in Hoover
I made a few more rounds looking for footage scenes. I settled on Green Springs Highway at West Valley Avenue for about an hour, where vehicles were struggling up and down a slight incline:
Sliding cars at Green Springs Highway and West Valley Avenue
The sun was out in full force, and any areas of the road that were not in shade were beginning to melt. The ice was melting from the bottom up - the dark road surface was heating, breaking its bond with the ice, which slowly broke up as vehicles traveled over it. The meltwater was visible flowing under the ice.
Thanks to needing to be at work the next day, I had to leave after noon on Saturday and begin the trek back home. It was apparent, however, that problems were far from over. Bridges and shaded spots remained icy, and there were many trouble spots in and around the city.
Icy bridge in north Birmingham
The main lesson I learned from this event is that in the South, a significant amount of the road problems happen after the storm is over. During the storm, most people heeded the warnings and stayed off of the roads. However, after the storm, people began venturing back out a little too soon. In this case, even with clear, sunny skies, the ice in shaded areas took two to three days to completely melt. I was seeing many reports of accidents/stuck vehicles for 2 days after I left.