I'm calm. 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. —Debbie Hartwig
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.
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.