Rare winter storm leaves students, drivers stranded in Deep South
Rescue efforts are under way Wednesday morning after thousands of schoolchildren and hundreds of drivers in the Deep South spent the night stranded at schools and along ice-covered highways following a rare winter storm that brought freezing rain, snow and bitter cold to the region.
The National Guard is sending military Humvees onto Atlanta’s snarled freeway system in an attempt to move stranded school buses and get food and water to students on them, Gov. Nathan Deal said early Wednesday. Several inches of snow blanketed the region the day before.
Deal said the Georgia State Patrol is also sending troopers to schools where children remain stuck after spending the night in classrooms. His statement says state transportation crews are continuing to treat roads and bring gas to stranded motorists.
A sea of red brake lights remained at a standstill along a dozen lanes of the Downtown Connector shortly before dawn Wednesday -- a signal that Atlanta's roads are still barely inching along or jammed shut.
It wasn't known how many students were still aboard school buses stuck on roadways in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday, but a couple of the children were Atlanta Public Schools students.
"We have two students on buses this morning," Steve Smith, associate superintendent with Atlanta Public Schools, said in a telephone interview with WSB-TV around 6 a.m. Wednesday. Both of those students were on the same bus, Smith said.
There were several reports of stranded school buses in Gordon County, but there were no reports of any serious injuries, according to MyFoxAtlanta.com.
While some parents were able to pick up their children at schools on Tuesday, thousands of other students in Alabama and Georgia skipped the roads altogether and spent the night hunkered down in schools.
In Hoover, Ala., school superintendent Andy Craig said 4,500 students spent the night in facilities there, MyFoxAL.com reports.
In nearby Birmingham, Mayor William Bell said Tuesday around 1,200 students would be staying overnight in area schools, with access to food and water.
Marietta school system spokesman Thomas Algarin told the The Atlanta-Journal Constitution Tuesday that hundreds of children in the city’s elementary, middle and high schools were also stuck.
“If it turns out that we’ve got to house the kids, they’ll be warm and they’ll be safe,” Algarin said. “We don’t have cots or beds, but certainly we have those gym mats that are used for P.E.”
The mad rush began at the first sight of snow: Across the Atlanta area, schools let out early and commuters left for home after lunch, instantly creating gridlock as highways surrounding the city that rarely see snow were converted into treacherous paths of ice.
The gridlock was so bad in Atlanta that a baby girl was delivered alongside Interstate 285, said Capt. Steve Rose, a spokesman for Sandy Springs police in suburban north Atlanta. He said an officer made it to the mother and her husband in time to help with the delivery, which he described as "flawless." There were no complications and the family was taken to a hospital.
At the Glenn Hotel in downtown Atlanta, the blast of cold air that rushed through each time the door opened and the snow-blown streetscape outside made it appear more like a scene from Minneapolis than Atlanta on Tuesday night.
Bartender Sean Perry lives just 15 minutes from work but it took him two and a half hours to reach the Glenn Hotel Tuesday night.
Chris Kennedy says it took him more than 5 hours to get a school near his house in the northwest Atlanta suburb of Acworth. The trip typically takes 10 minutes.
Before dawn Wednesday, nearly 50 work crews focused on metro roadways "and are hopeful Wednesday will bring a full recovery," the Georgia Department of Transportation said in an emailed update at 6 a.m. Wednesday.
"Clean-up efforts continue on metro Atlanta freeways and other roads in north and central Georgia and significant progress is being made," state transportation officials said in a Wednesday morning update.
In Alabama, public safety officials spent the night rescuing around 100 people on interstates and back roads, MyFoxAL.com reports.
"I talked with the governor's office. They are in the process of sending heavy equipment that was shifted down south for the predicted snow event from Montgomery on southward. Those vehicles are rolling into Birmingham and surrounding areas," Bell told the station early Wednesday.
Others who were still stuck in roads throughout Alabama went to Facebook, posting information about stranded motorists, while Good Samaritans offered to help.
“My inlaws are stranded on I-20 east… They are ok but are in need of BLANKETS, food, water, and a cell phone charger,” wrote one resident Wednesday morning.
“I'm in the Hoover are and ready to help. Have a warm house and a capable Jeep. Can bring gas, supplies, offer a ride, pull out a car or whatever it is you need,” wrote another.
Meanwhile, on the Gulf Shores beaches in Alabama, icicles hung from palm trees.
In Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp, the alligators burrowed into the mud to keep warm.
While a few inches of snow barely qualify as a storm in the north, it was enough to paralyze the Deep South. Many folks across the region don't know how to drive in snow, and many cities don't have big fleets of salt trucks or snowplows. Hundreds of wrecks happened from Georgia to Texas. Two people died in an accident in Alabama.
As of 9 p.m. local time, Georgia State Patrol responded to 940 crashes throughout the state, according to GSP spokesman Gordy Wright. He said 104 injuries and one fatality in Coweta County had been reported. Officials said Yvonne C. Nash, 60, of Griffin, died when she lost control of her car on Georgia Highway 85 in Senoia and landed upside down in a ditch.
Alabama State troopers have identified three people killed in traffic accidents that they say may have been weather-related.
They say 29-year-old Tyrell Harris of Wetumpka and his 2-year-old son, Rayne Harris, were killed shortly before 8 a.m. Tuesday in a seven-vehicle collision on Alabama Highway 14 west of Wetumpka. Troopers say their preliminary investigation indicates that ice on a bridge may have contributed to the wreck.
A two-vehicle crash about 11 a.m. Tuesday in Perry County killed one of the drivers, 64-year-old Emma Evans of Birmingham. The accident occurred 12 miles north of Marion on Alabama Highway 5. Troopers say their preliminary findings indicate the snowy, icy weather may have been a factor.
Many Southerners also lack the winter tools that northerners take for granted -- such as snow shovels. At a hardware store in the Georgia town of Cumming, shovels were in short supply, but manager Tom Maron said feed scoops -- often used in barns -- could be substituted.
The rare Southern winter storm dropped more than 3 inches of snow in some areas of north Georgia, while 2.3 inches were recorded at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, said National Weather Service meteorologist Ryan Willis.
For a second-straight day, the world's busiest airport in Atlanta was leading all other airports in the number of canceled flights. By Wednesday morning, more than 600 flights in and out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport were canceled, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware.com.
No flights were coming into or going out of Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport Wednesday morning, its website said. Flight cancellations were also piling up at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, where temperatures early Wednesday were in the teens.
The extreme cold makes it difficult for airport crews to de-ice planes.
The governors of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi all declared states of emergency. Shelters opened up across the region and many schools remained closed Wednesday.
Four people were killed in a Mississippi mobile home fire blamed on a space heater.
Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; Pensacola, Fla.; Virginia Beach, Va.; and New Orleans -- popular warm-weather tourist destinations where visitors can usually golf and play tennis in shirt sleeves or light jackets this time of year -- were expecting ice and snow on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, in the Midwest, dangerous cold continued to grip the region even as the storm moved south. Many schools closed for the second straight day. In Minnesota, forecasters said wind chills could reach 35 to 50 degrees below zero.