STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Surprise: People across the South are digging out this morning. Weather forecasters knew there would be snow, but missed their calculations on where and how much, which is how Principal Ken Jarnagin ended up sheltering about 800 students for the night at Spain Park High School in Hoover, Alabama.
KEN JARNAGIN: We decided to put all the males in the gyms. So we asked the coaches to roll out wrestling mats. And we spread the girls all throughout the academic wing.
INSKEEP: Where they had carpets on the floors. Now, some stranded drivers would have been happy with a gym mat or a carpet after sleeping in their cars. And NPR's own Russell Lewis spent the night at the offices of WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama. Russell, glad you found someplace warm
RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Yes, I got about 90 minutes of sleep myself.
INSKEEP: OK, fantastic. But explain something to us, if you can, because people across the country understand it doesn't snow that often in the South, but it snows. So, how did this storm cause so much paralysis?
LEWIS: Well, we should say, I mean, it snows in Birmingham once or twice a year. It's really not that unusual. But here's what meteorologists say: They admitted yesterday they made a huge forecasting error. It was supposed to be just a dusting, and not the two inches of snow, and certainly not the ice that showed up. It caught people off guard. The streets weren't treated. The storm was really only supposed to affect the coast. In fact, the state actually prepositioned trucks down there. Businesses closed. Schools released early. Roads were jammed, and it was just total ice gridlock.
INSKEEP: OK, you're helping to explain this: Alabama has equipment to deal with snowstorms, but it was in the wrong place, which means they can't respond quickly. So what happened next?
LEWIS: Well, the problems, they really just cascaded. The interstates, they turned into skating rinks. And people actually just got out of their cars, and they started walking. The temperature was in the teens. It was windy. Some people trudged through the ice and the snow for miles to get home. Look, there were accidents everywhere. At one point yesterday, there were 140 simultaneous crashes. The crews were working. The cars just - they just didn't have anywhere to go. And literally, for hours, people were in their cars, and they just sat and they idled where they were. We caught up with a few people who had actually pulled off the interstate to gas up, and we talked to Lainey Goodwin(ph). She had driven about a mile in seven hours.
LAINEY GOODWIN: You never know what the weather's going to do. And you need to be more prepared. I'll be more prepared for something like this.
LEWIS: I also talked to Grace Chandler. She had planned to camp out at that gas station last night, because she'd spent so long driving, and she was tired that she just hadn't gotten very far.
GRACE CHANDLER: I'd never been stranded away from home all night. This is my first event alone. It's kind of scary for me.
LEWIS: And within hours, a Facebook help group popped up, and motorists were on there, saying: I'm stuck at exit 244. Does anyone have gas? There was another person who said: I'm a diabetic, and I'm running out of insulin. Can anybody help me? Strangers offered motorists a place to spend the night, and thousands joined this Birmingham page to pitch in. And over in Atlanta, tens of thousands did the same for a similar Facebook page there.
INSKEEP: You know, I'm still thinking about the woman who told you that next time, I'll be more prepared for something like this. I'm not even sure how you would prepare for the possibility that you might suddenly be living in your car for hours or days on end.
LEWIS: Well, absolutely. And it's really a scary point. Emergency planners always say, you know, always be prepared for any eventuality. And this is the kind of thing that they're talking about, is that there had been discussion about, you know, there will be snow. You just need to be careful. But no one was expecting this.
INSKEEP: So, what's the biggest concern now, Russell?
LEWIS: Well, it's not expected to get above freezing today, which really means another day of difficult driving. There are still many abandoned cars and trucks all over the place. Early this morning, crews sent out buses, which were actually following the sand trucks on the interstate. And these buses were actually stopping to pick up drivers who spent the night in their cars, and were taking those drivers over to shelters. And, of course, we should say, this storm is not done. It's been snowing in the Carolinas and Virginia and points north. It's just a mess.
INSKEEP: How's the road outside WBHM now, Russell?
LEWIS: It is still icy and still snowy, and it is very, very dangerous.
INSKEEP: OK. Well, pour yourself a cup of coffee. Get a nap if you can, Russell, all right? And we'll check in with you by and by, and see how the weather's going.
LEWIS: Sounds good. I'll do my best.
INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Russell Lewis in Birmingham, Alabama, digging out after a sudden surprise snow storm. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.