ATLANTA (AP) — Students camped out with teachers in school gyms or on buses and commuters abandoned cars along the highway to seek shelter in churches, fire stations — even grocery stores — after a rare snowstorm left thousands of unaccustomed Southerners frozen in their tracks.
Tuesday’s storm deposited mere inches of snow, barely enough to qualify as a storm up North. And yet it was more than enough to paralyze Deep South cities such as Atlanta and Birmingham, and strand thousands of workers who tried to rush home early only to never make it home at all.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said early Wednesday that the National Guard was sending military Humvees onto Atlanta’s snarled freeway system in an attempt to move stranded school buses and get food and water to people. Georgia State Patrol troopers headed to schools where children were hunkered down early Wednesday after spending the night there, and transportation crews continued to treat roads and bring gas to motorists, Deal said.
Around Atlanta, nearly all public entities and most businesses were shut down early Wednesday. Officials encouraged would-be motorists not to drive. City buses were not running, and some commuters who opted for rail service met new frustrations as they stood on platforms awaiting trains into the city center.
Overnight, the South saw fatal crashes and hundreds of fender-benders. Jackknifed 18-wheelers littered Interstate 65 in central Alabama. Ice shut down bridges on Florida’s panhandle and the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, one of the world’s longest spans, in Louisiana.
Some commuters pleaded for help via cellphones while still holed up in their cars, while others trudged miles home, abandoning their vehicles outright.
Atlanta, hub to major corporations and the world’s busiest airport, once again found itself unprepared to deal with the chaos — despite assurances that city officials had learned their lessons from a 2011 ice storm that brought the city to its knees.
Georgia leaders seem aware of public angst over the lack of preparation. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said on Twitter Wednesday morning that crews are working diligently to salt and sand roadways. He added: “We know you want to get home, and we are going to work all day until you can return safely.” Twenty hours before, he offered this message on Twitter: “Atlanta, we are ready for the snow.”
The city’s Downtown Connector, numerous Interstate 75 entrance and exit ramps in suburban Cobb County, and stretches of the freeway in other counties were impassible at times after hours of snow Tuesday, Georgia Department of Transportation officials said.
Poor travel conditions were exacerbated Tuesday by a mass of workers ending their days early.
“Within a very short time frame, from when the snow started falling here, it became very obvious that everyone was leaving at the same time to go home,” Gov. Nathan Deal said during a late-night news conference.
A sea of red brake lights remained at a standstill along a dozen lanes of the Downtown Connector shortly before dawn Wednesday.
If there was a bright spot, it was that the bitter cold brought warm, Southern-style graciousness to the fore, as strangers opened up their homes, volunteers served coffee and snacks to the traffic-bound, and schoolbound principals played bingo and other games with stranded students to while away the time.
Debbie Hartwig, a waitress at an Atlanta area waffle house, said she managed to keep her cool thanks in part to the kindness of strangers after 10 hours on the road.
“I’m calm,” she said. “That’s all you can be. People are helping each other out, people are moving cars that have spun out or had become disabled. It’s been really nice. I even saw people passing out hot coffee and granola bars.”