Stranded, cold motorists spend nights on freeways after rare snow in South

(CNN) - Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said Wednesday that he believes it was a mistake for businesses and schools to release people early at roughly the same time as Tuesday's snow hit the area -- and said that 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 on Wednesday morning.

"I don't feel people are angry at me. I feel they have a great deal of frustration," Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told "CNN Newsroom" Wednesday morning after a winter storm caused traffic gridlock and stranded motorists for hours.


[Original story posted at 9:55 a.m.]

When snow only three fingers deep triggers an epic traffic jam, stranding motorists and schoolchildren on interstates for hours, there's something wrong with this picture.

Two inches of snow isn't supposed to turn highways into campsites. Backups aren't supposed to last all day, through the night and into the morning.

And yet, here they were -- motorists across Alabama and Georgia -- still hunched over in their cars Wednesday morning, feeling the aftereffects of a snow shower that hit a day earlier.

Sixteen hours after leaving school in a bus, some Atlanta-area students were still making their way home. Atlanta Public Schools spokeswoman Kimberly Willis Green said "several hundred students at nine schools are sheltered in place."

Rebekah Cole left work Tuesday afternoon and was still sitting in traffic 10 hours later -- at 1 a.m. Wednesday. She said she hoped her car wouldn't run out of fuel as she prepared to spend the night in it.

She described what she had seen as a "zombie movie" -- droves of people got out of their cars and were having conversations.

In the dead of night, they talked and walked between cars covered in white powder.

Early Wednesday, 10 hours after leaving her office, Cole's nine-mile trip home was barely halfway over.

"If I get gasoline, I will turn the heater on, keep the windows cracked a little bit," she said.

As she approached the gas station, she saw long lines of other motorists seeking to fill up. Then the fuel light in her car went on.

Similar stories unfolded elsewhere in the Deep South, from Louisiana to North Carolina, as snow, freezing rain and sleet laid down a sheet of thin ice in a region unfamiliar with such weather.

Motorists set out for home at the first sight of snow, clotting the streets.

Georgia and Alabama were hit especially hard. Governors in both states declared states of emergency.

"I'm eight months' pregnant and have my 3-year-old with me," Atlanta-area resident Katie Norman Horne said on SnowedOutAtlanta, a Facebook page set up to help stranded motorists.

"We've been in the car for over 12 hours. We are fine on gas but is anyone near on the road and might happen to have any food or some water?"

In Atlanta, 940 accidents were confirmed, with more than 100 of them involving injuries, the Georgia public safety commissioner said.

In Alabama, at least five people died Tuesday in weather-related traffic accidents. The governor deployed 350 National Guard troops to help motorists.

Stranded travelers sought refuge at strangers' homes and in schools and businesses. Home Depot opened 26 stores to travelers overnight in Alabama and Georgia.

Forecasters had warned that Atlanta was expecting 1 to 2 inches. But in the morning, when the snow had not arrived, people went to work and school, like nothing was coming.

Then it did.

At about the same time early Tuesday afternoon, schools, businesses and government offices sent home students and workers as the streets began to ice.

Motorists thought they could deal with it. They couldn't. The spinouts began.

Early Wednesday, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said government should shoulder part of the blame.

"We do take responsibility for having the business community, the government and our schools basically leave all at once," he said.

Mariano Castillo, a news editor at, got a firsthand view of the chaos from behind the steering wheel when he joined the exodus from downtown trying to get home.

"The weather was a great equalizer," he said after sitting in traffic for nine hours. "(It) didn't matter if you had a late model Mustang or a beater van or a Brink's armored car, your wheels were spinning fruitlessly on the ice and slipping."

Abandoned cars and stranded big rigs stood in what looked like vehicle graveyards made more eerie by the sound of would-be commuters talking and walking on the interstate, he said.

The experience was mystifying to Stephen Gianopulos, 40, who moved to Georgia this month from Chicago. Shortly before 6 p.m., he left his office in Atlanta's Buckhead section. But, after sitting in his car for 20 minutes without getting anywhere, he went back to his office. "I couldn't understand why nobody was moving; the streets weren't icy yet," he said.

At 7:30 p.m., he tried it again, completing the 6-mile commute in one and a half hours.

In Chicago, the dusting "would be a nonissue," Gianopulos said. "It wouldn't even make news."

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Good Samaritans

The catastrophe brought out the goodness in many people.

"I got some tea from some kids, from them and their mom," Cole said. But that soon resulted in another problem -- there was no place to stop for a bathroom break. She quit drinking fluids.

But it was a mere inconvenience compared with the situation of a woman in labor in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs.

Traffic jams blocked her way to the hospital and kept paramedics from reaching her, so -- with the aid of a police officer -- she delivered her daughter Tuesday evening.

Mira Lowe, a CNN editor, watched as people left their cars to help each other get unstuck.

"A trio of guys in hoodies walking asked a young woman sitting in a car on the side of the road if she needed a push," she said. "There was a sense that we are all in this together.

In Alabama, teachers stayed in their classrooms to care for stranded students.

The weather forced 4,500 students to spend the night in school buildings in Hoover, Alabama. And 800 students were stuck overnight in schools in Birmingham, officials said.

"Staff is staying with them, feeding them," Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Craig Witherspoon said. "High schools are showing movies."

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley urged parents unable to reach their children to remain calm.

"I know the anxiety there," Bentley said. "I want to reassure all the parents that if you trust your teacher to take care of your child during the day, they will be taken care of tonight."

At the Alabama Waldorf School, about 20 students spent the night at a nearby home after state officials urged parents not to drive in the snow.

"They're doing really well," Administrator Lisa Grupe said. "They're just having an extended play date. We all looked like ducks walking in the snow together."

On Twitter, a second-grade teacher said about 150 students and 50 staff members were stranded at Greystone Elementary School in Hoover.

Not that they were all complaining.

"Very exciting day," teacher Carol McLaughlin tweeted late Tuesday afternoon. "... The kids are being real troopers. : ) I think they think it's an adventure."

Reed, Atlanta's mayor, urged residents to stop driving for at least a day to give crews a chance to clean up.

"The next 24 hours, I really need folks to stay home," he said. "Go home, give us some time."

Early Wednesday, Reed said 30 salt trucks had been deployed.

Until they clear the roads, motorists may be stuck on ice for a while.

The way the forecast looks, ice will stick around for a day, maybe two.


The way the forecast looks, ice will stick around for a day, maybe two.


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