Huntsville employees, citizens step up during paralyzing ice storm

single-meta-cal January 31, 2024

Amid the cold, there was compassion. Amid the dreariness, there was determination.

For City of Huntsville front-line employees, it was a nonstop effort to help residents whose lives were paralyzed by the ice storm that left Huntsville roads treacherous and businesses shuttered for multiple days.

Even as life stopped, life still went on. That’s what Public Works Director Chris McNeese noticed when he saw a woman walking through the ice – wearing chains on her shoes to keep from slipping on the treacherous sidewalks – walking along Carl T. Jones Drive to pick up her husband’s medication at a Jones Valley pharmacy.

McNeese, out inspecting roads, offered the woman a ride to the pharmacy. She accepted and then he waited while the prescription was filled and drove her back home.

“It was dangerous for her to be out in these conditions, and I was glad to have been at the right place at the right time to help,” McNeese said.

There were small efforts far from the headlines, such as a newly-hired Huntsville police officer helping a woman – slowed already with a therapeutic boot on her left leg – walking across a slippery street.

Another officer showed compassion to a couple after their vehicle slid off the road in Five Points. In a post on Nextdoor, Jason Haughton said the officer checked on him and his wife after finishing working an unrelated nearby wreck.

The officer helped guide them back onto the road “and never made us feel silly or incapable because we had gotten ourselves into a mess,” Haughton wrote.

The heroes, it seemed, were everywhere.

A Huntsville Police Officer assists motorists following a multivehicle crash on Golf Road in Huntsville. There are numerous cars evident.

A Huntsville Police Officer assists motorists following a multivehicle crash on Bonnell Drive in Huntsville. (Photo credit: Facebook/Colton Burgess)

Stepping up to help

The responses came in perhaps unthinkable ways. For instance, when patients were discharged from Huntsville Hospital, how would they get home when roads were largely impassable? That’s when Huntsville Fire & Rescue (HFR) stepped up, ferrying those patients back home when they had no other way to get there.

“They had a backlog in the hospital because they had patients they could dismiss, but they didn’t have anybody who could drive on the roads to come get them,” HFR Chief Mac McFarlen said. “We were trying to help get people home to free up hospital beds for those waiting to be admitted.”

HFR did the same for some hospital employees who couldn’t drive to work themselves, transporting them down icy hills so that they could care for those who needed care.

“It has been heartwarming to see our community come together during these challenging weather conditions,” said Huntsville Hospital President/CEO Tracy Doughty. “We are thankful for Huntsville Fire & Rescue’s service, which undoubtedly made a significant impact on the health and safety of those we serve.”

‘Angels with big trucks’

As City road crews worked to clear the ice from roads, their trucks often began sliding back down hills on the slick streets. Roads they were able to make some progress on would quickly refreeze, forcing workers to start all over.

Inevitably, there were some complaints about roads not being cleared. Road crews, however, worked around-the-clock on the icy roads to defeat the enemy that only the warmth of the sun could fully conquer.

District 4 Council Member Bill Kling thanked all those who battled treacherous road conditions and braved subfreezing temperatures to respond to emergencies.

“This was not a snowstorm; it was an ice storm and there is a major difference,” Kling said. “… We can all agree while we would have liked to have everything resolved in 15 minutes, it just wasn’t going to happen when you’ve got solid ice and the temperatures we had. … I think this community appreciates the good effort by our people and we’re very fortunate about that.”

Huntsville Fire & Rescue trucks wait outside Huntsville Hospital. The trucks are red. There is visible ice on the lead truck.

Huntsville Fire & Rescue trucks wait outside Huntsville Hospital. The department helped ferry discharged patients home from the hospital.

It wasn’t just police officers, firefighters, utility workers, EMS crews and Public Works employees going above and beyond, however. Citizens stepped up, too.

Council President David Little received an email from a constituent praising the efforts of a Monte Sano resident who, equipped with tire chains on his flat-bed truck, made more than a dozen trips up and down the mountain picking up medicine and groceries for neighbors and transporting those who needed a ride on the slick streets.

“Sometimes,” the email to Little said, “God sends his angels equipped with chains and big trucks!”

Mayor Tommy Battle also received reports from residents who used social media to network with neighbors who needed help. They shared food and prescriptions, and one man broke out his garden hoe to break up the thick ice on an elderly neighbor’s driveway.

“It’s heartening to see people generously step up to help each other,” Battle said. “No matter how many trucks we buy, or roads we treat, nothing will ever replace the impact of people helping people.”

There are many stories to be told from the ice event of 2024, but the best ones will be about those who braved the storm by keeping a cool head and a warm heart.

A view of icy roads at the intersection of Bob Wallace Avenue and Memorial Parkway.

Bob Wallace Avenue at Memorial Parkway as seen covered in ice. Hundreds of crashes were reported the week of Jan. 15-20 as few vehicles could overcome treacherous road conditions.