- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 29, 2014

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Thousands of people stranded overnight at school, at work or in their cars began getting home Wednesday as ice melted from Alabama highways and crews cleared roads littered with wrecked and abandoned vehicles.

The winter storm that hit Alabama on Tuesday was wider and more severe than many officials expected. The National Weather Service revised its forecast shortly before snow and ice started falling, but for many citizens the warning came too late. Five people died in crashes that state troopers said appeared weather-related. The deaths were near Wetumpka, Marion and Cottondale.

Thousands of wrecked and abandoned cars were scattered across Birmingham area roads Wednesday. The state Department of Transportation towed cars from Interstate 20 to make it passable.

“It looked like the zombie apocalypse,” Republican state Rep. Mack Butler of Rainbow City said Wednesday. He was driving to a meeting of the Legislature on Tuesday when he had to stop at a gas station in Birmingham and spent the night in his pickup truck because highways were impassable.

Warmer weather Thursday is expected to finish clearing roads, but many schools in south and central Alabama are remaining closed. State offices will reopen at noon Thursday.

“The traffic is proceeding very slowly, but we are making progress,” Gov. Robert Bentley said Wednesday afternoon.

It was much different Tuesday night.

Linda Moore spent 12 hours stuck in her car on Interstate 65 south of Birmingham before a firefighter used a ladder to help her cross the median wall and a shuttle bus took her to a hotel where about 20 other stranded motorists spent the night in a conference room.

“I boohooed a lot,” she said. “It was traumatic. I’m just glad I didn’t have to stay on that interstate all night, but there are still people out there.”

Moore’s car moved less than 4 miles and burned a half-tank of gas during the ordeal. Her daughter, a teacher, was stranded at school with kindergarteners overnight.

Karen Evans spent the night with about 100 people at the Pelham Civic Complex after being unable to get home to Columbiana. She left work after 10 a.m. and had only moved a few miles on U.S. 31 by 5 p.m., but she did make it to the shelter.

“People were getting out of their cars and just leaving them in the road,” Evans said.

State helicopters flew over Jefferson and Shelby counties searching for stranded motorists who hadn’t received help, and 350 National Guard troops were activated to help with rescues. But state Emergency Management Director Art Faulkner said none was found who hadn’t received assistance.

About 11,000 children were stranded at schools statewide Tuesday night because buses couldn’t get them home and parents couldn’t get to the schools, said Michael Sibley, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Education. Most were in the Birmingham area.

Some 1,600 children remained in schools by late Wednesday afternoon, and some would have to spend a second night, he said.

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