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

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ATLANTA (CNN) — Ten hours after Rebekah Cole left her Atlanta-area office, her trip home was barely halfway over early Wednesday.

Rare snow triggered epic traffic snarls, stranded students at schools and left motorists camped on the roadsides for hours.

Many spent the night hunched over in their cars on freeways as the hushed voices of other motorists wafted into the crisp, cold air.

They talked and walked between cars covered in white powdery snow in the dead of the night.

Cole left work Tuesday afternoon and was still sitting in traffic at 1 a.m. Wednesday. She was preparing to spend the night in her car and hoping it didn’t run out of fuel.

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

Cole was not the lone car on the freeway. She was stranded with multitudes of others as cold temperatures dropped even further.

Her story was replicated in the Deep South, from Louisiana, to North Carolina, to Alabama, as snow, freezing rain and sleet laid down a sheet of thin ice in a region not familiar with such weather.

Motorists rushed home at the first sight of snow, creating a traffic nightmare, CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward said.

Georgia and Alabama were especially hit.

“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?”

There have been 940 confirmed accidents in Atlanta, more than 100 of them involving injuries, said Georgia public safety commissioner Mark W. McDonough.

In Alabama, where freezing rain made driving perilous, at least five people were killed in weather-related traffic accidents Tuesday. The governor declared a state of emergency and deployed 350 National Guard troops.

Stranded travelers sought refuge at strangers’ homes, schools even Home Depot, which opened 26 stores to travelers overnight in Alabama and Georgia.

At the stores, some briefly forgot their snow woes and watched movies in break rooms.

“At one store they even opened up an indoor garden area to be a quiet area to open for reading,” said Stephen Holmes, a spokesman for the store chain.

They were warned

Everyone had been warned. Atlanta was expecting 1-2 inches.

“The snow was forecast, and people just didn’t heed it enough,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.

In the morning, when the snow had not arrived, people went to work and school, like nothing was coming.

Then it did.

“Everybody panicked at around the same time afternoon,” Myers said. They clogged the streets en masse just as they began icing over.

In the end 2-3.5 inches hit central Georgia. That may not sound like much, but it’s usually how much snow falls in the region in a whole year, Ward said.

“People thought …I can deal with that,” Myers said.

They couldn’t. “There’s literally one spinout after another,” he added.

Unexpected eeriness

It’s all echoed in what CNN editor Mariano Castillo experienced on his way home from work. His shift ended in the early afternoon, as the chaos began.

“The weather was a great equalizer,” he said after sitting in traffic for nine hours. “Didn’t matter if you had a late model Mustang or a beater van or a Brinks 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, Castillo wrote. Then there was this unusual sound.

“The unexpected voices of commuters talking and walking between cars on the interstate added to the eeriness,” he said.

It gave Cole a strange feeling, too.

“You could hear voices, but you couldn’t hear where they were coming from,” she said.

She was on an overpass, and thinks they came from the interstate below her.

Nothing was moving down there. People who tried to drive up exit ramps to get off the ice. They were stuck.

Stranded in cars, schools

Countless motorists sat on the ice in their cars — in between droves of cars left abandoned by their owners.

Thousands wondered how they’d get make it through the night as the temperatures headed for the teens.

This included school children on school buses.

At least 50 Atlanta Public School students were still stranded just after midnight, said spokeswoman Kimberly Willis Green.

Others had not left their schools and were set to spend the night there.

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

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

Hoover sent out school buses to pick up stranded motorists, said Rusty Lowe, executive officer for the city Fire Department. He is hoping to transport as many as 100 people to local shelters with the buses.

Stay home?

In Alabama and Georgia, authorities asked motorists to stay off the roads.

“This is a very dangerous situation,” Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said. “People need to stay at home. They need to stay there until conditions improve.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed 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 told CNN affiliate WSB. “Go home, give us some time.”

The warnings not to drive came too late for countless people. The admonitions to make it home impossible to fulfill.

With no salt or sand trucks to clear the roads, motorists may be stuck on ice for a while.

The ice is not going anywhere for a day, maybe two, Ward said.

CNN’s Ben Brumfield and Catherine E. Shoichet, Ray Sanchez, Steve Almasy, Devon Sayers, Michael Pearson, Holly Yan, Greg Botelho, Kevin Conlon, Dave Alsup, Janet DiGiacomo, Alanne Orjoux, Victor Blackwell, Tom Watkins, Chad Myers, Sean Morris, Dave Hennen, Joe Sutton, Martin Savidge and Jareen Imam contributed to this report.

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2 comments

  • DC

    A number of years ago, I worked in Atlanta during the winter for about 3 months. One morning it was snowing very lightly, barely sticking and you won’t believe the number of accidents I saw during my 4 mile trip. They are not used to driving in snow and apparently not enough common sense to slow down.

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