By Keysha Drexel
What was forecasted to be a light dusting of snow last week turned into a scene of crippling chaos as a rare winter storm left Over the Mountain residents stranded in their cars, at schools or anywhere they could find shelter.
And while the severity of the storm stunned everyone–including meteorologists–Over the Mountain city officials said they were not at all surprised about how their employees and residents responded in the storm’s aftermath.
“The way everyone pulled together, the way our first responders went above and beyond in their jobs, no, none of that was a surprise,” said Mountain Brook Mayor Terry Oden. “That’s the way we operate over here–we work together to make a bad situation better.”
Thousands of students had to shelter overnight at schools, separated from their families, as hundreds of abandoned and disabled vehicles clogged the interstates and almost every road in the Over the Mountain area. Motorists were stranded on Birmingham metro roadways for hours–some without food or the medications they needed–and employees were stuck at their offices.
Emergency personnel had trouble getting to stranded motorists and answering the thousands of calls for assistance they received in the aftermath of the storm because of the ice-coated roadways.
But the bleak scene had several bright spots, city officials said, with countless stories of Good Samaritans helping strangers, teachers easing the fears of worried children separated from their parents and businesses opening their doors to shelter and feed those stranded by the storm.
“This could have been a whole lot worse, but our citizens jumped in, our employees did an outstanding job and we all worked together to make it through,” said Vestavia Hills Mayor Alberto “Butch” Zaragoza.
The stories of working together streamed in through social media throughout the storm and during its aftermath.
Kelly Garner of Vestavia Hills went missing after the storm on Jan. 28 after he being seen helping stranded motorists for hours on U.S. 31 near the Walmart Marketplace. Neighbors organized a search party and found Garner unconscious in a wooded area behind the Vestavia Hills Library in the Forest.
Michael Kurz, an emergency room physician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, treated patients at a makeshift ER set up at Green Valley Baptist Church off Patton Chapel Road in Hoover. Three nurses who sought shelter at the church pitched in and helped Kurz treat patients who needed emergency care.
In Homewood, Zenko Hyrn, a neurosurgeon, walked six miles in the snow and ice from Brookwood Medical Center to Trinity Medical Center to perform a lifesaving brain surgery.
Across the area, residents opened their doors to those stranded by the storm, offering coffee, food and a warm place to stay.
“I’m sure that was a scene that played out in the entire Over the Mountain community, not just in Homewood,” Mayor Scott McBrayer said. “That kind of generosity and hospitality doesn’t surprise me at all.”
And it wasn’t just residents who pitched in during the storm, McBrayer said.
“We had businesses staying open just so they could give people somewhere to go,” he said. “Brookwood Mall had their doors open. Target stayed open until 10 p.m. Tuesday night and then left their lobby open as a warming station. The folks at Piggly Wiggly were incredible and came in and worked to take care of people who were stranded for I don’t know how long. Our businesses owners are real neighbors in Homewood.”
Hoover Mayor Gary Ivey said while the city’s first responders were inundated with calls for help from people stuck on the roads and interstates, the city received just as many calls from people who were looking for ways to help.
“There were so many stories of human kindness, of good neighbors or people stepping up and doing whatever they could to help each other,” Ivey said. “We got caught off guard by this whole thing–everybody was–but it really brought the community together.”
All of the mayors of the Over the Mountain cities praised not only their fire and police personnel but also other city employees for going above and beyond the call of duty during the winter weather crisis.
“They never complained about getting out and getting to the work that needed to be done. They stayed on extra shifts and were away from their families so they could help the residents of Mountain Brook,” Oden said. “Most of them don’t even live here, but they have a great feeling for this community and they put that first, and we appreciate that very much.”
In Hoover, Ivey said, employees stranded at Hoover City Hall overnight manned the phones and helped divert noncritical emergency calls.
“You can’t say enough about the efforts of our first responders, of the folks in the Public Works Department, of everyone who stayed on past their shifts,” Ivey said.
Zaragoza said Vestavia Hills immediately activated its weather plan and got good use out of the surplus military Humvees it acquired through a government program last year.
McBrayer said Homewood, too, has plans for emergency situations like the freak winter storm that were put into place as soon as officials realized the weather forecast was wrong.
“The first thing I did was to call (Homewood City Schools Superintendent) Bill Cleveland, because when we realized that this was going to be a lot worse than we thought, our first thought was to make sure our students were safe,” he said.
All of the mayors said they were touched and impressed by the level of care and dedication the teachers and staff members of Over the Mountain schools showed during the storm.
“Our teachers, the cafeteria staffs in the schools, they were all just incredible during this. They are devoted to our kids, and that showed,” Ivey said.
McBrayer said he doesn’t think the people of Homewood acted all that differently during the storm than they do every day.
“We don’t need a storm to show us that there are random acts of kindness in Homewood on any given day,” he said.
Ivey said the winter storm showed him what he has always known about Hoover and the Over the Mountain community.
“We’re neighbors and friends here, and this whole thing really reminded of us of that,” he said.
As for what they’ve learned from winter storm 2014, the mayors said they will probably be watching the weather a little more closely in the future.
“I think we’ll be paying attention to the weather more and being ready to make decisions really fast in case something like this happens again,” Zaragoza said.