It was just a few inches of snow, but for the normally balmy South, enough of it fell to throw life into turmoil for millions of people from Louisiana to Virginia on Wednesday, trapping Atlanta motorists overnight on highways and forcing hundreds of children to camp overnight at school.
Some of the worst disruptions were in Georgia, where schoolchildren were marooned on buses or stayed overnight in classrooms or gyms. Some workers in downtown Atlanta slept in their offices, and many traffic-trapped motorists simply trudged home in the cold.
More than 1,000 accidents were reported. State troopers rescued stranded motorists, and National Guard troops made food deliveries. Social media erupted with parents incensed that they were forced to drive through the storm to retrieve their children.
Emergency crews were still rescuing some motorists Wednesday morning.
Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., were virtually shut down. Workers who hoped to rush home at midday Tuesday to beat the snow instead created traffic gridlock just as the storm was hitting. Parents frantically drove to schools and buses and struggled to get children safely home. Atlanta reported nearly 800 traffic accidents, and Georgia state police logged nearly 1,400 wrecks, with at least one person reported dead and at least 130 injured.
Stranded motorists pleaded for help in cell phone calls. Governors in North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Louisiana declared states of emergency.
In Sandy Springs, Ga., just north of Atlanta, an expectant father and a local police officer helped a mother deliver a baby inside a car on Interstate 285 around 5 p.m. Tuesday after the couple was unable to make it to a hospital through clogged traffic. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the mother and baby Grace were doing fine after paramedics took the family to the hospital.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said state National Guard troops had been sent to highways to try to move stranded school buses. Georgia state troopers were dispatched to schools to help retrieve students who had spent the night, he said.
A Guard spokesman said troops handed out military Meals Ready To Eat, or MREs, to motorists and provided water to a stranded family to make formula for a baby.
By mid-morning, Atlanta school officials said all schoolchildren were "in a safe place," either under care at schools or at refuges as fire stations to await transport home. But that barely cooled tempers on social media, where parents blasted school officials for not canceling classes as soon as forecasters predicted the storm.
"I want heads (to roll) tomorrow," one parent posted on the Facebook site for the DeKalb County School District in Georgia. He complained that his wife still had not returned home by midnight after fighting her way through snow and traffic to try to retrieve the couple's child from school.
"I shudder to think of the lawsuits if any students, faculty or parents are seriously hurt or even killed because you were so foolish as to ignore weather reports and not cancel school," another parent wrote on the site.
On Instagram, a Georgia parent wrote, "My baby (was) stuck at school, because Marietta High School was crazy and did not let school out early!"
Atlanta city officials had assured the public that they had learned the harsh lessons of a 2011 ice storm that paralyzed the city. "Atlanta, we are ready for the snow," Mayor Kasim Reed posted on his Twitter account Tuesday.
But by Wednesday morning, Reed's Twitter messages sought to reassure angry residents that the city was working hard to plow roads and get everyone home safely:
"We know you want to get home, and we are going to work all day until you can return safely."
Reed said "a lot of people" were still stranded on highways Wednesday morning, but he was not certain how many. City bus service was shut down, and people waited in vain on icy train platforms for trains that were late or never arrived.
Asked how he would rate the city's handling of the storm, the mayor replied: "I'm not thinking about a grade right now. I'm thinking about getting people out of their cars."
Tractor-trailers jackknifed on Interstate 65 in central Alabama. Bridges as far south as Florida were shut down by ice, and the long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana was closed to traffic by ice.
On Facebook, SnowedOutAtlanta sprung up with nearly 40,000 members. Some homeowners posted offers to host stranded travelers in spare bedrooms. People shared information on grocery stores and gas stations that were open, with updates on how much milk, bread and bottled water remained on store shelves. Others asked for places to stay.
A few people posted photos of crumpled highway guardrails or tricked-out pickup trucks equipped with all-wheel drive, tow cables and jumper cables. The Georgia National Guard posted an announcement that troops had located a stranded bus with five special-needs children aboard and had taken them to a local armory.
One woman pleaded with people not to post "political grumblings" — there were screeds lambasting city, state and school officials by name — or even thank you messages until some order had been brought to storm-related chaos.
A bit of sunshine broke through gray clouds over Atlanta by late morning, but temperatures remained below freezing. Forecasters called for continued temperatures well below normal throughout the day and another hard freeze overnight. Deal said state offices would be shut down through Thursday.
In North Carolina, coastal areas where people normally stroll along beaches or play golf in late January, beaches were nearly deserted after forecasters predicted four to eight inches of snow. But the actual snowfall, mixed with sleet, was less — under two inches in coastal Wilmington, N.C. Manteo up the coast to the Outer Banks received six inches. Inland some eastern county areas received five eight inches.
In central and eastern North Carolina, schools and businesses shut down all day Tuesday as a precaution after three to eight inches of snow was predicted. Actual totals were much lower, including a dusting of well under an inch in Durham and Chapel Hill in the center of the state.
That prompted complaints from some parents miffed that they had to arrange for child care for their children, who were delighted at the snow day but disappointed that there was barely enough snow for snowballs or sledding. School officials responded by saying they preferred to be safe rather than sorry.
"We made the decision (to close) based on the best forecast data possible, erring on the side of safety and giving parents as early a notification as possible," Chip Sudderth, a spokesman for the Durham school system, told The News & Observer.
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