ATLANTA — Helicopters on Wednesday searched for stranded drivers while Humvees delivered food, water and gas — or a ride home — to people stuck on roads after a winter storm walloped the Deep South.
Students spent the night on buses or at schools, commuters abandoned their cars or slept in them and interstates turned into parking lots. The problems started when schools, businesses and government offices let out at the same time.
As people waited in gridlock, snow accumulated, the roads froze, cars ran out of gas and tractor-trailers jackknifed, blocking equipment that could have treated the roads. In the chaos, though, there were stories of rescues and kindness.
It wasn’t clear exactly how many people were still stranded on the roads a day after the storm paralyzed the region. By Wednesday afternoon, traffic around Atlanta began moving, although it was still slow going in some areas. How long it would be until things would start to clear and thaw was also uncertain, because temperatures were not expected to be above freezing.
“We literally would go five feet and sit for two hours,” said Jessica Troy, who with a co-worker spent more than 16 hours in her car before finally getting home late Wednesday morning. Their total trip was about 12 miles.
“I slept for an hour, and it was not comfortable,” Troy said. “Most people sat the entire night with no food, no water, no bathroom. We saw people who had children. It was a dire situation.”
The rare snowstorm deposited mere inches of snow in Georgia and Alabama, but there were more than 1,000 fender benders. At least six people died in traffic accidents, including five in Alabama, and four people died early Tuesday in a Mississippi mobile home fire blamed on a faulty space heater.
Elsewhere, Virginia’s coast had up to 10 inches of snow, North Carolina had up to eight inches at parts of the Outer Banks and South Carolina had about four inches. Highways in Louisiana were shut down.
In Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., thousands of cars filled interstate shoulders, abandoned at the height of the traffic jam. Some sat askew at odd angles, apparently left after crashes. Some commuters pleaded for help via their cellphones while still holed up in their cars while others abandoned their vehicles and trudged miles home.
Linda Moore spent 12 hours stuck in her car on Interstate 65 south of Birmingham before a firefighter used a ladder to help her cross the median wall. A shuttle bus took her to a hotel where about 20 other stranded motorists were spending the night in a conference room. “I’m just glad I didn’t have to stay on that interstate all night,” she said.
Some employers, including Blue Cross Blue Shield in Alabama, had hundreds of people sleeping in offices overnight.
Atlanta,home to major corporations and the world’s busiest airport, once again found itself unprepared to deal with the chaos — despite assurances that city officials had learned their lessons from a 2011 ice storm that left the city stricken. Some residents were outraged that more precautions weren’t taken this time and that schools and other facilities weren’t closed ahead of time.
State and school officials said the forecasts indicated that the area would not see more than a dusting of snow and that it didn’t become clear until late Tuesday morning that those were wrong.
If there was a bright spot in the gridlock, it was the Southern-style graciousness. Strangers opened up their homes, and volunteers served coffee and snacks to the traffic-bound.
Debbie Hartwig, a waitress at a Waffle House in the Atlanta area, said she managed to keep her cool thanks in part to the kindness of strangers after 10 hours on the road. “I’m calm,” she said. “That’s all you can be. People are helping each other out; people are moving cars that have spun out or had become disabled. It’s been really nice. I even saw people passing out hot coffee and granola bars.”
Stephanie Reynolds, a second-grade teacher, spent the night with about 10 students and two dozen co-workers at Meadow View Elementary School in Alabaster, Ala. Many parents were stuck in cars on roads and unable to pick up their children, she said.
Reynolds comforted crying children, played games and did lesson plans covering two weeks. A dance party helped fill up a few minutes, and the children ate pizza for dinner and biscuits and gravy for breakfast.
Heroes also had their day. Police in suburban Atlanta say one of their own helped with the safe delivery of a girl on a gridlocked interstate Tuesday after snow and ice brought traffic to a crawl.