The South surrendered today to one of its worst winter storms of the century.
The storm brought a whisper of snow, two inches, to this bustling southern city at rush hour Tuesday, but that was enough to paralyze Atlanta and turn downtown into a ghost town today. Commuters trying to get home slipped and slid into each other like bumper cars, turning streets and highways into an icy gridlock, injuring about 200 and leaving seven dead in Georgia.
Few even tried to get to work as factories shut down and workers were ordered to stay home. Hundreds of children were rescued after spending hours in buses. Hundreds more were snowbound in schools overnight.
That was the story across much of Dixie, where at least 41 people were reported dead from snow and cold-related causes. Agriculture was hard hit, and some Florida officials said the storm might be as damaging as the freeze of 1977, which destroyed $500 million worth of citrus.
The storm roared out of Texas, swung up the Eastern Seaboard and closed schools in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and the suburbs of New York City. In the South it left from one to six inches of snow over the Carolinas and Tennessee, northern Mississippi and Alabama. A million people were without power, most of them in Alabama, where tree limbs cracked and power lines snapped under a heavy glaze of ice.
Georgia Gov. George Busbee declared a state of emergency and dispatched 230 National Guardsmen to rescue marooned motorists and shove aside abandoned vehicles. Many cars were vandalized as drivers left them in the middle of interstate highways and made their way to nearby hotels and shelters, or camped out in offices and bars downtown.
And even as the Deep South dug out, another storm threatened to drop up to another four inches of snow in some areas, including Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.
"Nobody knows how to drive down South," said Gene Coleman, 55, a local bartender who emigrated from Buffalo. He attributed his booming business to snow-freaked southerners.
Record low temperatures in Florida, from 14 to 33 degrees, apparently froze every commercial crop north of Miami: sugar cane and vegetables in the rich lowlands around Lake Okeechobee, grapefruits and vegetables in the vast Everglades area of Immokalee and the multimillion-dollar plant nurseries along the southeast coast.
The Florida Citrus Commission today debated whether to call a temporary shipping embargo on fresh fruit because of this week's damaging frost. Such an embargo would prohibit out-of-state shipments, usually for a 10-day period. After that, only fruit inspected and found undamaged is certified for shipment to retailers outside Florida.
But Jack Matthews, spokesman for the Florida Citrus Commission, said it was too soon to assess the damage. The frozen fruit still could be used as concentrate for juice.
"We just can't sell it as fresh fruit," he said. About 30 percent of the citrus crop has been harvested. Half of the rest of the crop is "mature," and could be processed for concentrate in spite of the freeze.
But growers of Valencias, the remainder of the crop, said they were worried about juice yield, since their fruit doesn't mature until March. Surveys of 137 groves showed that 84 percent of the oranges had internal ice, but most of the iced fruit that stays on the trees can be harvested safely and processed for juice, the mainstay of Florida's citrus industry.
The biggest hospital in Louisiana, Charity Hospital, in New Orleans, sent many patients home, postponed elective surgery and discouraged visitors. Hospital water pressure was low because many homeowners left faucets running to keep pipes from freezing.
Airline flights were canceled from many cities across Dixie, and, although Atlanta airport remained open, some flights never took off because crews were snowbound at home.
Convenience stores reported a run on soft drinks, popcorn, potato chips--"junk food for snow parties," said one manager--and groceries. There was a rush on eggs and milk as fearful southerners battened down.
The storm sent stranded stockbrokers barreling onto Peachtree Street for snowball fights and back into bars to warm up. Volunteer bartender Bill Jones, one of seven patrons deputized on the spot to handle overflow crowds at Fitzgerald's, called it "the biggest day of the year," as patrons consumed a two-week stock of beer and whiskey in one night.
"People ought to get out and enjoy the snow instead of grumbling about it," drawled Joshua Lee Patton, 28, a burly executive bodyguard and ex-Marine who roared through the streets in his dune buggy.