Helicopters search for stranded Southern drivers after storm leaves travelers stuck on the roads (+photos)
ATLANTA — Helicopters took to the skies Wednesday to search for stranded drivers while Humvees delivered food, water and gas — or a ride home — to people who were stuck on roads after a winter storm walloped the Deep South.
Students spent the night on buses or at schools, commuters abandoned their cars or slept in them and interstates turned into parking lots. The problems started when schools, businesses and government offices all let out at the same time. As people waited in gridlock, snow accumulated, the roads froze, cars ran out of gas and tractor-trailers jackknifed, blocking equipment that could have treated some of the roads. In the chaos, though, there were stories of rescues and kindness.
It wasn't clear exactly how many people were still stranded on the roads a day after the storm paralyzed the region. And the timing of when things would clear and when the highways would thaw was also uncertain because temperatures were not expected to be above freezing.
"We literally would go 5 feet and sit for two hours," said Jessica Troy, who along with a co-worker spent more than 16 hours in her car before finally getting home late Wednesday morning.
Their total trip was about 12 miles.
"I slept for an hour and it was not comfortable," Troy said. "Most people sat the entire night with no food, no water, no bathroom. We saw people who had children. It was a dire situation."
The rare snowstorm deposited mere inches of snow in Georgia and Alabama, but there were more than 1,000 fender-benders. At least six people died in traffic accidents, including five in Alabama, and four people were killed early Tuesday in a Mississippi mobile home fire blamed on a faulty space heater.
Elsewhere, Virginia's coast had up to 10 inches of snow, North Carolina had up to 8 inches on parts of the Outer Banks, South Carolina had about 4 inches and highways were shut down in Louisiana.
In Atlanta and Birmingham, thousands of cars lined interstate shoulders, abandoned at the height of the traffic jam. Some sat askew at odd angles, apparently left after crashes. 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 rescuers and medics in helicopters were flying over Jefferson and Shelby counties conducting search and rescue missions.
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.
"They are claiming that they didn't know the weather was going to be bad," Jeremy Grecco, of Buford, said in an email. "They failed to dispatch these trucks prior to the road conditions becoming unfavorable."
Officials from schools and the 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 were aware of public angst and tried to mitigate it.
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