Modest snowfall creates chaos in Atlanta, stranding thousands of drivers and students

Associated Press SHARE

By DAVID CRARY and RAY HENRY, Associated Press

The Associated Press

Richard Uzoma returns to his car after he lost control and abandoned it overnight along with other vehicles which couldn't traverse the ice build up on Peachtree Industrial Blvd. Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Norcross, Ga. Uzoma said it took him 12 hours to travel 10 miles last night then lost control less than a mile from his house. (AP Photo/John Amis)

ATLANTA (AP) — Thousands of Atlanta schoolchildren stranded all night long in their classrooms were reunited with their parents Wednesday, while rescuers rushed to deliver blankets, food, gas and a ride home to countless shivering motorists stopped cold by a storm that paralyzed the South's flagship city with less than 3 inches of snow.

As National Guardsmen and state troopers fanned out, Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal found themselves on the defensive, acknowledging that the storm preparations and the response could have been better. But state officials also blamed forecasts that said conditions wouldn't be so bad.

The icy weather wreaked similar havoc across much of the South, closing schools and highways, grounding flights and contributing to at least a dozen deaths from traffic accidents and a mobile home fire.

Yet it was Atlanta, home to major corporations and the world's busiest airport, that was Exhibit A for how a Southern city could be sent reeling by winter weather that, in the North, might be no more than an inconvenience.

The mayor said the city could have directed schools, businesses and government offices to stagger their closings on Tuesday afternoon, as the storm began, rather than dismissing everyone at the same time.

The result was gridlock on freeways that are jammed even on normal days. Countless vehicles were stranded — and many of them abandoned. Officials said 239 children spent Tuesday night aboard school buses; more than 10,000 others stayed overnight in their schools.

One woman's 12-mile commute home took 16 hours. Another woman gave birth while stuck in traffic; police arrived just in time to help. Drivers who gave up trying to get home took shelter at fire stations, churches and grocery stores.

One traffic death was reported in Atlanta — that of a man killed in a crash.

"I'm not thinking about a grade right now," the mayor said when asked about the city's response. "I'm thinking about getting people out of their cars."

The governor said the National Guard was sending Humvees onto Atlanta's snarled freeways to move stranded school buses and deliver food and water. State troopers headed to schools where children were hunkered down, and transportation crews brought gas to motorists.

By Wednesday night, Deal said all Atlanta-area schoolchildren were back home with their parents.

Atlanta was crippled by an ice storm in 2011, and officials had vowed not to be caught unprepared again. But in this case, few closings or other measures were ordered ahead of time; officials said the forecasts indicated no more than a dusting of snow.

Deal, who is up for re-election in November, said the state may tighten requirements for truckers to use tire chains. Tractor-trailer wrecks were blamed for many highway bottlenecks. The governor also said warnings could have been posted along highways earlier and farther out Tuesday.

But he also fended off criticism about the government's response.

"I would have acted sooner, and I think we learn from that and then we will act sooner the next time," Deal told reporters.

"But we don't want to be accused of crying wolf. Because if we had been wrong, y'all would have all been in here saying, 'Do you know how many millions of dollars you cost the economies of the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia by shutting down businesses all over this city and this state?'"

Deal faulted government forecasters, saying they warned the storm would strike south of Atlanta.

However, the National Weather Service explicitly cautioned on Monday that snow-covered roads "will make travel difficult." And around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, the agency issued a winter storm warning for metro Atlanta and cautioned people not to travel except in an emergency.