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Helicopters search for stranded Southern drivers after storm leaves travelers stuck on the roads (+photos)

By Russ Bynum

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 29 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed took some of the blame for schools, businesses and government all letting out at the same time, and he said they should have staggered their closings.

"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."

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who faces re-election in November, fended off criticism about the government's response to the storm. He said emergency officials prioritized to rescue stranded children on buses first and were aiming to make contact with all stranded motorists by Wednesday.

"Our goal today is that there will not be anybody stranded in a vehicle on our interstates that has not been offered the opportunity to go to a place of safety and security," Deal told reporters at a Statehouse news conference.

Ryan Willis, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, Ga., said temperatures were still below freezing Wednesday and they were to dip back into the teens overnight. Thursday will offer much warmer weather, around the upper 30s to lower 40s.

If there was a bright spot in the epic gridlock, it was the Southern-style graciousness. Strangers opened up their homes and volunteers served coffee and snacks to the traffic-bound.

Debbie Hartwig, a waitress at an Atlanta-area Waffle House, said she managed to keep her cool thanks in part to the kindness of strangers after 10 hours on the road.

"I'm calm," she said. "That's all you can be. People are helping each other out, people are moving cars that have spun out or had become disabled. It's been really nice. I even saw people passing out hot coffee and granola bars."

Stephanie Reynolds, a second-grade teacher, spent the night with about 10 students and two dozen co-workers at Meadow View Elementary School in Alabaster, Ala. Many of the children's parents were stuck in cars in roadways and unable to pick up their kids, she said.

Reynolds comforted crying children, played games and did lesson plans for two weeks. A dance party helped fill up a few minutes, and the children ate pizza for dinner and biscuits and gravy for breakfast.

"The students have been here so long: all day yesterday, overnight and now," Reynolds said. "I'm going on no sleep right now. I didn't even try. I figured since I was here I might as well be productive."

Heroes also had their day. Police in suburban Atlanta say one of their own helped assist the safe delivery of a baby girl on a gridlocked interstate Tuesday afternoon after snow and ice brought traffic to a crawl.

Associated Press writers Kate Brumback, Ray Henry, Phillip Lucas, Bill Cormier, Bill Barrow and Don Schanche in Atlanta; Mike Graczyk in Houston; Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C.; Kevin McGill and Stacey Plaisance in New Orleans; Jay Reeves in Montgomery, Ala.; Brock Vergakis in Norfolk, Va.; and Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans contributed to this report. Bynum reported from Savannah.

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