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Motorists stranded in rare Alabama snowstorm

| Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, 8:42 p.m.

CULLMAN, Ala. — A traffic jam that extended at least eight miles on Interstate 65 in Alabama — forcing hundreds of motorists to camp out in vehicles overnight after a rare Southern snowfall — finally cleared Friday as rising temperatures melted remnants of the freeze.

Some questioned whether road officials were caught flat-footed by a winter storm that was predicted for days. The state highway department denied it was unprepared.

Hundreds of people spent a cold night trapped on I-65 north, about 50 miles north of Birmingham, because a winter storm dumped snow around the Southeast and caused at least one death in Mississippi. As much as 4 inches fell in Alabama on Tuesday, quickly coating roads in northern counties, particularly higher elevations

Motorists got stuck on I-65 in Cullman County when the snow caused a series of wrecks and vehicles lost traction on a hilly stretch called Lacon Mountain.

One of those trapped was lawyer Bob Bentley, who said he spent nearly 14 hours in his Toyota Prius before he could begin moving again at 4 a.m.

“I played a lot of ‘Words with Friends.' I found some old food under the seat, some old Christmas pretzels. I listened to all the NPR programs twice,” he said.

Bentley said people just turned off their vehicles and sat there because there wasn't anywhere to go. He said people were getting out of their vehicles, building snowmen and walking to the edge of the woods to relieve themselves.

Cindy Parker, who works at a Shell gas station just off I-65 in Cullman, said a steady stream of frustrated motorists stopped at the store to buy food, get directions and vent.

“Weather like this is so unusual for us. They don't realize that the hills and bridges between Birmingham and Huntsville will get so icy,” she said.

Skies were sunny and temperatures in the 40s by midday Friday. The highway was flowing freely without backups, but abandoned and wrecked vehicles littered the roadsides, along with melting snowmen.

More freezing temperatures are forecast next week in Birmingham. City officials said they would open the city auditorium for the homeless.

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