By Holbrook Mohr
JACKSON – Arctic air kept Mississippi cold Wednesday, and the system that brought snow and sleet was being blamed for four deaths from a fire as well as hundreds of wrecks and road closures.
No additional accumulation of freezing rain, sleet or snow was expected Wednesday, National Weather Service forecasters said, but bitter cold temperatures would remain through early Thursday with a gradual rise statewide into the 50s by the weekend.
At Guy Bass’ Cotton Alley Cafe in Natchez, six employees, about half of Bass’ his staff, couldn’t make it to work Wednesday because of the weather. The restaurant, which serves American fare like burgers and steaks, is about a half mile from the Mississippi River bridge that connects Natchez and Vidalia, La.
Bass said the bridge was closed until noon Wednesday, so the employees who live in Louisiana couldn’t make it to work.
That has presented a challenge. Cotton Alley Cafe is also close to the city’s convention center and the people there were been piling into the restaurant because they didn’t want to venture too far on ice-covered roads. And Bass said he wasn’t sure if his delivery trucks would be able to make it from Jackson on Wednesday.
“It’s sort of Russian roulette today,” Bass said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
The bad weather, however, didn’t discourage everyone from getting out on the roads, including some sightseers.
“Natchezians were are extremely inquisitive and tend to ride around when they shouldn’t,” Bass said.
The Mississippi Department of Transportation and the Highway Patrol warned motorists that icy conditions continued on roadways and bridges in central and south Mississippi.
“It’s okay up here in Jackson,” said Warren Strain, spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, “but the farther south you go, the worse the road conditions because of the hard freeze. Stay off the road if at all possible.”
On Tuesday, four victims died in an early morning mobile home fire, blamed on a faulty gas space heater in the living room, ranged from 3 months to 30 years old. Itawamba County officials said the bodies of Shelby Cason, 17; Anna Clair Chilcoat, 2; and Kaden Angle, 3 months, were found in the gutted trailer. Susan G. Chilcoat, 35, died later at a local hospital. Two people were hospitalized in Memphis, Tenn., while three others were treated and released.
Highway Patrol spokesman Warren Strain said icy conditions remained extremely hazardous in the southern half of the state.
“We’re looking at sunny conditions,” said meteorologist Joanne Culin with the National Weather Service in Jackson. “We’re not going to warm up a huge amount — we’ll see a high around 35 degrees. But we should see with the sun, some of it melting.”
Ingalls Shipbuilding announced the cancellation of its first shift for Thursday at its Pascagoula and Gulfport shipyards based on current road conditions and information from local law enforcement officials.
Company officials say the current plan is for second and third shifts to be open on Thursday, but employees are encouraged to call the company’s emergency information phone line for any future work schedule changes and updates.
Many schools and government offices closed Tuesday and some remained closed Wednesday. State offices, expect for those in south Mississippi, reopened at noon Wednesday. Members of the state’s House and Senate returned late Wednesday.
In Hattiesburg, David Smith and his wife, Elizabeth, decided to brave the sleet and snow Tuesday afternoon by strolling around the Thames Elementary School walking track.
“I was feeling a little cabin fever, so I thought we would get out and check out this weird weather,” said David Smith, a computer programmer who was off work.
Elizabeth Smith, a University of Southern Mississippi doctoral student in mass communications, said she’s used to heavier snows back home in Colorado.
“It makes me laugh that they (USM) canceled school because of it, although it’s really slippery, so it’s a good thing that they did,” she said. “They made a good choice.”
In Biloxi, the Boomtown Casino closed Tuesday — the only one of the 12 to do so. The casino reopened Wednesday.
The casino’s marketing director said she knows they’re the only gambling facility to close for the cold weather, but she said they wanted to put safety first for their mostly local customers and employees.
“We’re a different kind of model of casino anyway. You know we don’t have the spa and hotel, we really rely on employees and we have great employees. Great customers and we’re kind of a comfortable local place,” said Boomtown Marketing Director Sunita Sailor.
In Biloxi, Police Chief John Miller said there are few bridges open “except for I-10, and on that you have to move very slowly.”
Miller said he’s been pleasantly surprised by the lack of accident-related calls the department has received.
“It’s been amazing,” he said. “Motorists are understanding the situation.”
Miller said there have been a few exceptions, however, like several drivers who got stuck on bridges and ramps in Biloxi overnight.
“We had a couple of people who tried to come down the Ocean Springs loop off I-110 and we had to go up there and get them,” he said. “One of the units couldn’t get down, either, so we just left the unit and brought them down. (The cars) are still up there. We’re not going to try to get them down, it’s just not safe.”