ATLANTA — Students spent the night on buses or at schools, commuters abandoned their cars or idled in them all night and the highways-turned-parking lots iced over when a winter storm slammed the city, creating a treacherous traffic jam that lasted into Wednesday.
It wasn’t clear exactly how many people were still stranded on the roads, a day after the storm hit the Deep South on Tuesday, paralyzing the region. And the timing of when things would clear and the highways would thaw was also uncertain because temperatures were not expected to be above freezing for very long.
Authorities worked to get food, water, gas and blankets to people still stranded in their cars and National Guard vehicles and police were to escort home the thousands of children who were still at schools. Hundreds of children spent the night on school buses, officials said.
The rare snowstorm deposited mere inches of snow, but the South saw fatal crashes and more than 1,000 fender-benders. At least six people died in traffic accidents, including five in Alabama, and four people who were killed early Tuesday in a Mississippi mobile home fire blamed on a faulty space heater.
In Atlanta and Birmingham, highways were clogged by jackknifed 18-wheelers. Ice shut down bridges on Florida’s panhandle and the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, one of the world’s longest spans, in Louisiana. Some commuters pleaded for help via cellphones while still holed up in their cars, while others trudged miles home, abandoning their vehicles outright.
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 and a shuttle bus took her to a hotel where about 20 other stranded motorists spent the night in a conference room.
“I boohooed a lot,” she said. “It was traumatic. I’m just glad I didn’t have to stay on that Interstate all night, but there are still people out there.”
Some employers such as Blue Cross Blue Shield in Alabama had hundreds of people sleeping in offices overnight. Workers watched movies on their laptops, and office cafeterias gave away food.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s office said rescue personnel and medics in state aircraft were flying over Jefferson and Shelby counties conducting search and rescue missions for stranded motorists.
On the coast, snow covered grass and sidewalks in Orange Beach. Ice-covered roads forced mass closings even in Mobile, where ice coated ornate iron balconies.
Atlanta, hub 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 brought the city to its knees. Some residents were outraged that more precautions weren’t taken this time around and schools and other facilities weren’t closed ahead of time. But officials from schools and that state said weather forecasts indicated 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.