Deep South snow storm: Stranded, cold motorists spend nights on Atlanta freeways after rare snow
Ben Brumfield and Catherine E. Shoichet
6:23 AM, Jan 29, 2014
12:27 PM, Jan 29, 2014
ATLANTA (CNN) -- When a dusting of snow triggers an epic traffic jam, stranding motorists and school kids on interstates for hours, there's something very 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 following morning.
And yet, here they were -- hundreds of motorists across Alabama and Georgia -- still hunched over in their cars Wednesday morning, feeling the aftereffects of a snow shower that hit the states more than 12 hours earlier.
In Atlanta, seven students children were still making their way home on a school bus at 5:30 a.m. ET Wednesday morning -- a full 16 hours after school let out and they got on.
Rebekah Cole prepared to spend the night in her car on an Atlanta street as the temperature slid into the teens and her tank ran low on gas.
She described what she had seen all around her as a "zombie movie."
Streets, highways, interstates gridlocked with people in cars and trucks in the same situation she was in -- stranded on the ice for 8, 10, 12 hours.
She heard an unusual drone of voices.
"You couldn't hear where they were coming from," she said. Droves of people had gotten out of their cars and were having conversations.
They talked and walked between cars covered in white powdery snow in the dead of the night.
Ten hours after leaving her office, Cole's nine-mile trip home was barely halfway over early Wednesday.
She left work Tuesday afternoon and was still sitting in traffic at 1 a.m. Wednesday. As she prepared to spend the night in her car, she hoped it wouldn't run out of fuel.
"If I get gasoline, I will turn the heater on, keep the windows cracked a little bit," she said.
The gas station was within sight, and it was swamped with people trying to get gas ahead of her.
Then the fuel light in her car went on.
A big problem
Cole's 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.
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, the Georgia public safety commissioner said.
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.
Everyone had been warned. Atlanta was expecting 1-2 inches. But people did not heed the forecast.
In the morning, when the snow had not arrived, people went to work and school, like nothing was coming.
Then it did.
Motorists panicked at around the same time in the afternoon. 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, said CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward.
Motorists thought they could deal with it. They couldn't. The spin-outs began.
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. 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.
Stranded in cars, schools
Thousands wondered how they'd get make it through the night as the temperatures headed into the teens.
This included school children on school buses.
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.
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.
Early Wednesday, Atlanta mayor Kasim 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.
CNN's 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.