Atlanta descends into complete gridlock after 3 inches of snow

The South came to a wintry standstill Tuesday. In Atlanta, pre-storm preparations were insufficient, leaving motorists stranded and forcing some kids to spend the night at school.

David Tulis/AP
Abandoned cars are piled up on the median of ice-covered Cobb Parkway in Atlanta after a winter snow storm slammed the city with over 2 inches of snow that turned highways into parking lots creating massive traffic jams.

Tuesday morning, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed promised the hub of the South that City Hall was “ready for the snow.”

That turned out to have been serious hubris, as the city whose phoenix symbol rises from the fire saw two inches of snow and ice turn into a nightmare gridlock that stranded motorists in sub-zero weather for more than 18 hours and left school children having to spend nights in school buses alongside interstate highways.

The rare snowstorm deposited mere inches of snow in Georgia and Alabama, but there were more than 1,000 fender-benders, the Associated Press reported. At least six people died in traffic accidents, including five in Alabama, and four people were killed early Tuesday in a Mississippi mobile home fire blamed on a faulty space heater. Around Atlanta, state police and the National Guard continued to rescue motorists on Wednesday morning. 

To many experienced snow-dwellers, the situation took on a tragi-comic aspect since it was clear that officials botched preparations despite promises that the city would do better after a similar event in 2011.

For one thing, Atlanta Public Schools bucked surrounding counties by vowing to open Tuesday amid what they said a “dusting of snow.” When the snow came, the school district made a panicked decision to send kids home early, exacerbating a citywide exodus. Snow plows made little difference, with many getting stuck in snow themselves.

Rookie snow drivers slid into bumpers and into ditches, freezing the city’s interstates and surface streets pretty much to a standstill. Hundreds of children spent nights at elementary schools around Atlanta, and worried families struggled to get news from stranded wives and husbands as cellphone towers at times failed to handle the load.

The scene was surreal as some residents donned skates to glide through their neighborhoods, and apartment complex dwellers fanned out on roadways to push cars up hills and try to keep traffic moving. Home Depot opened its stores to hundreds of people seeking shelter, underscoring a sense of Southern hospitality and kindness that managed to at least, in part, make a nightmare day a bit more bearable.

Governors of five Southern states declared emergencies as the rare snow storm swept across the region. But a situation that some in the North might find laughable was anything but as commuters abandoned cars in droves and strangers worked together to make sure those unprepared didn’t succumb to the conditions.

As a gauge of the seriousness of the situation, unknown numbers of school children remained stranded on buses in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday

Most immediately, Southern hospitality reigned as strangers took in strangers and tried to make the best of the situation. At one church shelter, dozens of stranded people, including a few homeless men, sat around chit-chatting over barbecue as though they’d known each other forever. A baby was delivered in gridlock traffic only minutes after a state trooper managed to get through, helped by drivers getting out of the way of his siren screams and lights.

But officials do have a lot of questions to answer.

Why, after purchasing more snow equipment following the 2011 ice storm that halted the entire city for a week, didn’t officials salt surface roads before the snow? Why did schools say they were just expecting a dusting when a quick check on Monday night showed up to three inches of accumulation beginning at around 11 a.m.?

Indeed, there was no chance of throwing the weather men under the bus as they had the storm well-predicted a full day before the flurries began.

Atlanta Mayor Reed and other officials said the poor conditions were made worse when almost everyone in the city decided to try to get home at the same time.

But Reed also acknowledged Wednesday that it was a mistake for businesses and schools to release people early at roughly the same time as Tuesday's snow hit the area. He said doing so contributed to the massive gridlock that stranded motorists for hours. 

"I said immediately yesterday that releasing all of these folks was not the right way to go," Reed said in a testy exchange with CNN's Carol Costello. "We created a situation from a traffic standpoint that was very challenging."

Gov. Nathan Deal was ridiculed for calling the storm "unexpected."

"There are certain things we can't control, and one of them is the weather," Governor Deal said Tuesday night. "This came rather unexpectedly."

Both leaders said preparations since the last storm will make the cleanup from this one go faster. Small comfort for a city just gone through an icy wringer.

Chastened but mostly safe, pretty much the entire city stayed home on Wednesday, except for those who could walk to work.

“This has been an ordeal for everyone,” Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Natalie Dale said. “This storm and bitter temperatures have caused so much difficulty, discomfort and anxiety for so many Georgians.”

Evan McLean seconded that emotion. “This was hands down the worst day of my life,” the metro Atlanta resident told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper.

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