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1 day after storm, Atlanta highways still gridlock

By Russ Bynum

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 30 2014 12:33 p.m. MST

John Fitzgerald, a lineman for Dominion Power, uses cross-country skis on Hanbury Road in Chesapeake, Va. to get to work on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. The National Weather Service says the Norfolk area averages fewer than three days of snow each winter that result in at least an inch of accumulation. Wednesday marks the fourth day in less than two weeks that at least an inch of snow has fallen.

The Virginian-Pilot, Steve Earley, Associated Press

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 out on the roads nearly 24 hours after the storm slammed the Deep South on Tuesday. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said it was "a lot of people," and officials were working to get them food, water, gas and eventually a way home.

The timing of when things would clear was also uncertain because temperatures were not expected to be above freezing for very long, meaning the roads may not have a chance to thaw.

"I'm not thinking about a grade right now," Reed said when asked about the city's response. "I'm thinking about getting people out of their cars."

The rare snowstorm deposited mere inches of snow, and yet it was more than enough to paralyze Deep South cities such as Atlanta and Birmingham, and strand thousands of workers who tried to rush home early only to never make it home at all.

Overnight, the South saw fatal crashes and hundreds of fender-benders. Jackknifed 18-wheelers littered Interstate 65 in central Alabama. 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.

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 expressed outrage 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.

Still, Georgia leaders seem aware of public angst and tried to mitigate it. Reed took the blame for schools, businesses and government all letting out at the same time, and he said they should have staggered their closings.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said the National Guard was sending military Humvees onto Atlanta's snarled freeways to try to move stranded school buses and get food and water to people. Georgia State Patrol troopers headed to schools where children were hunkered down early Wednesday after spending the night there, and transportation crews continued to treat roads and bring gas to motorists, Deal said.

Around Atlanta, nearly all public entities and most businesses were shut down early Wednesday. Officials encouraged would-be motorists not to drive. City buses were not running, and some commuters who opted for rail service met new frustrations as they stood on platforms awaiting trains into the city center.

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