Special Report: When Winter Weather Strikes - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Special Report: When Winter Weather Strikes

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

Single digit cold, wind chills below zero. This winter has been brutally cold. Cold, but so far, dry. We're not always so lucky, though. Occasionally, wintry blasts of snow and ice visit Alabama, and it comes with consequences.

Snow and ice visited Alabama this week. The Doppler 12 StormVision team looked into how often Alabama encounters wintry weather, and the results might surprise you.

Deep snow in the Deep South. Rare? Sure. Impossible? No. Think Blizzard of 1993.

As we saw this week, even the southern parts of Alabama aren't immune to wintry weather. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Either way, snow and ice can shut down Alabama.

Roads become treacherous, the power goes out, schools and workplaces close. Big winter storms are unusual here. Since 1966, Montgomery has recorded at least a trace of snow 59 times. That means you have a roughly 90 percent chance of seeing a trace of snow in any given year.

But like the snow, statistics can be slippery. Most of those snow events are minor.

Since 1900, Montgomery has only had nine events of snow an inch or greater. That knocks chances of a significant snow event down to 1 in 12 in any given year. It's a small chance, but history tells us it does happen.

The all time champion snowstorm in Montgomery, with 11 inches of snow, happened back in December of 1886. Four other times, Montgomery has seen over three inches of snow.

In February of 1973 a rare major snowstorm affected south Alabama. Ten to fourteen inches of snow were reported from Evergreen to Phenix City.

Many recall the snowstorm of March 1993, "The storm of the century". Snow fell on every square foot of Alabama and some parts of the state had more than a foot of snow.

John Trusty was a manager at the Burger King on Carmichael Road at the time. The storm had a calling card that he recalls vividly: "It was the most unusual thing I had witnessed in my life. It was a thunder snow," Trusty recalled. "I didn't even know it was possible."

"When it snows like that, Montgomery does not have the proper equipment to handle the wintry conditions. According to Montgomery Director of Public Works Chris Conway, it just isn't cost-effective to stockpile salt. So that means, "sand is probably our major defense."

That same defense – sand – is employed by the State of Alabama.

"Economically, and for the event that we normally have, sanding operations provides all we need for friction," Conway says, "but when it gets to a certain point, don't get on the highway".

Sand helps vehicles maintain traction. But unlike salt, sand does not melt ice. It has little effect once roadways become snow covered.

The Alabama Department of Public Transportation maintains its greatest resources, including de-icers, over the northern third of the state where winter storms are more common.

The next time we have significant snow, Conway says your safest option is to," Stay at home. Don't get out on the roads. There's lurking danger."

Even worse than snow is freezing rain. When snow falls, the temperature is usually at or below freezing from the cloud all the way down to the ground. That concept is pretty simple. Freezing rain forms when subfreezing air near the ground lies underneath a layer of warmer air up at cloud level. As the rain falls into subfreezing air, it freezes on whatever it hits.

Alabama Power lineman David Henderson has strong words about ice: "I would rather work a hurricane or tornado than an ice storm," he says.

There have been 21 icing events in or near Montgomery since 1950. That's roughly one every three years. Our last icing event? January of 2011, three years ago.

Henderson remembers that ice storm well. He was in Auburn, in the worst of it. "Everything over there was 2-3 inches of ice. The lines were froze. The switches were froze. The trees were breaking," he recalls. And when those trees break, the power goes out, often for several days.

It's important that you and your family be prepared. Batteries, fresh water and canned food are a few of the items recommended for having in the event of an ice storm.

Remember, without power, kitchen appliances are useless. No refrigerator means that you need a cooler to help keep perishable food items cold. Without an electric can opener, you'll need a manual can opener to open canned food items. Batteries of all sizes also come in handy.

Most Alabama snow days are fun, a day off from school, maybe a few snowmen, but Alabama isn't immune to dangerous winter storms. We've had them before and we'll have them again. Perhaps sooner than you think.

Copyright 2014 WSFA 12 News.  All rights reserved.

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