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North, central Ala gets up to 4 inches of snow

A vehicle that slid off Hwy 86 near Carrollton, Ala. is seen Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. State Troopers said two, two vehicle accidents happened at the same point around 7 a.M. EST Thursday. No one was injured in the accidents. A wet blanket of snow covered much of West Alabama Thursday morning. (Dusty Compton / Tuscaloosa News)

A vehicle that slid off Hwy 86 near Carrollton, Ala. is seen Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. State Troopers said two, two vehicle accidents happened at the same point around 7 a.M. EST Thursday. No one was injured in the accidents. A wet blanket of snow covered much of West Alabama Thursday morning. (Dusty Compton / Tuscaloosa News)

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — North and central Alabama were blanketed with as much as 4 inches of snow as a winter weather system moved across the state Thursday, forcing businesses and schools to close early and snarling traffic for hours on Interstate 65.

A mix of thick snowflakes and sleet fell in the Tennessee Valley region, and Huntsville traffic slowed to a crawl on the bridge spanning the Tennessee River.

Forecasters hadn't expected serious travel problems from the storm, but they occurred.

Some motorists were stuck on I-65 for seven or more hours north of Cullman after a series of crashes snarled traffic and caused a traffic jam that went on for miles. The county emergency management agency opened a shelter at the Cullman Civic Center for stranded motorists, but it wasn't clear how many drivers could even get there.

Traffic crawled across a slickened Tennessee River bridge over a waterway swollen out of its banks. Some areas of the state had received as much as 6 inches of rain since Sunday, prompting flood warnings and watches across a wide area.

Scores of schools, businesses and government offices as far south as metro Birmingham pushed back their opening times for Friday because of the threat of icy roads after freezing temperatures overnight.

National Weather Service forecasters in Huntsville say the city was dusted with snow while 3 inches fell in Hartselle, southwest of Huntsville, and 4 inches in Cullman, south of Huntsville.

Police responded to numerous crashes on Interstate 65 north and south of Cullman. Some drivers left their cars to smoke and stretch while traffic slowed to a crawl for miles. Heavy snow reduced visibility to one-half mile north of Birmingham, and slush piled up quickly on overpasses.

Jessica Rey, who works at a Subway restaurant in Decatur and lives in Tennessee, kept an eye out as snow fell. Her boss told her not to get stranded at work.

"He told me to leave early if it gets bad," she said. "I live 90 miles from here."

The threat of slippery roads prompted officials to close NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Engineers postponed an outdoor rocket test to give center workers time to get home; the center was among the workplaces planning to open late.

National Weather Service forecasters said temperatures were expected to drop to freezing or below freezing, but afternoon highs around 50 degrees on Friday should clear away the remaining snow and ice.

Although the snow and sleet had stopped as of Thursday night, officials were cautioning drivers about potential for black ice overnight.

The storm system spread across Northern Georgia and into the Washington, D.C., area after slamming Alabama. Warnings and advisories were in effect in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland and Washington.

The storm hit parts of Mississippi earlier Thursday.