By Holbrook Mohr
JACKSON – Mississippi authorities say the deaths of five people have been linked to this week’s winter storm.
The latest came Wednesday when a vehicle struck the back of a stalled tractor-trailer in Smith County, killing one of the passengers in the moving vehicle.
Four people died early Tuesday in a mobile home fire in Itawamba County.
Hundreds of wrecks and road closures were reported as an Arctic front dropped ice and snow in parts of the state.
National Weather Service forecasters said no additional accumulation of freezing rain, sleet or snow was expected late in the state Wednesday, but bitter cold temperatures would remain through early Thursday with a gradual rise statewide into the 50s by the weekend.
Gov. Phil Bryant said state offices in areas affected by snow and ice are scheduled to reopen Thursday, though agency directors can decide to keep some closed, as needed.
In Simpson County, a motorist escaped injury when his SUV skidded off a county road and hit a natural gas regulator station near D’Lo, said Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Greg Flynn.
Flynn said the accident caused a fire and local officials evacuated about 16 families in the area as a precaution. Flynn said the fire caused no injuries and was extinguished, but gas continued to leak from the regulator station. He said a repair crew from Gulf South Pipeline, which owns the station, was headed to D’Lo. The American Red Cross set up an emergency shelter, Flynn said.
In the Mississippi Delta, catfish farmer Ben Pentecost of Doddsville said a layer of ice coated his family’s ponds. Pentecost, who has raised catfish for 33 years, says in an interview Wednesday with the Associated Press that he thought most of the fish would survive, though they’d be stressed by the cold.
“As long as they’re in the water, they’re not going to die,” Pentecost said.
He said on Tuesday, crews at his ponds loaded catfish onto trucks to go to processing plants. They worked in 19-degree weather and their nylon nets were frozen stiff.
At Guy Bass’ Cotton Alley Cafe in Natchez, six employees, about half of Bass’ staff, couldn’t make it to work Wednesday because of the weather. The restaurant, which serves 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. Cotton Alley Cafe is near the city’s convention center and people there piled into the restaurant because they didn’t want to venture onto ice-covered roads. Bass said he wasn’t sure if delivery trucks would be able to make it from Jackson.
“It’s sort of Russian roulette today,” Bass said in a telephone interview with the AP.
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 the central and southern parts of the state.
“It’s OK 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 people died in an early morning mobile home fire, blamed on a faulty gas space heater in the living room. 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.
Strain said icy conditions remained extremely hazardous in the southern half of the state.
Ingalls Shipbuilding announced the cancellation of its first shift for Thursday at its Pascagoula and Gulfport shipyards based on road conditions and information from local law enforcement officials. Company officials said the plan is for second and third shifts to be open on Thursday, but employees were encouraged to call the company’s emergency information line for updates.
In Biloxi, the Boomtown Casino closed Tuesday — the only one of the 12 Gulf Coast casinos to do so. It reopened Wednesday.
Biloxi Police Chief John Miller said few bridges were open “except for I-10, and on that you have to move very slowly.”
Miller said several drivers got stuck on bridges and ramps Tuesday night.
“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.”
Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson contributed to this report.