By Ben Brumfield and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
When snow only three fingers deep 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 a day earlier.
In Atlanta, seven students 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. Atlanta Public Schools spokeswoman Kimberly Willis Green said “several hundred students at nine schools are sheltered in place.”
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. Governors in both states declared states of emergency.
“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 deployed 350 National Guard troops to help motorists.
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.
Early Wednesday, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed gave government part of the blame for the rush into traffic after closing schools and government offices around the same time businesses shut down.
“We do take responsibility for having the business community, the government and our schools basically leave all at once,” he said.
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.
The catastrophe brought out the goodness in many people.
People who lived along the road handed out hot beverages and water, as Cole drove by.
“I got some tea from some kids, from them and their mom,” she said. But it soon presented a problem of its own. There was no place to stop for a bathroom break. She quit drinking fluids.
That was a mere inconvenience compared to the situation of a pregnant woman in labor in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs.
Traffic jams on snow-covered roads stopped the woman from making it to the hospital and blocked paramedics from reaching her.
That’s when a police officer stepped in, helping deliver the baby girl Tuesday evening.
CNN editor Mira Lowe watched as people got out of their cars to help each other get unstuck.
“A trio of guys in hoodies walking asked a young woman sitting in a car on the side of the road if she needed a push,” she said. “There was a sense that we are all in this together.”
In Alabama, teachers stayed behind to care for students who were stranded.
The severe weather has 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.”
Gov. Robert Bentley urged parents who are unable to reach their children to remain calm.
“I know the anxiety there,” he said. “I want to reassure all the parents that if you trust your teacher to take care of your child during the day, they will be taken care of tonight.”
At the Alabama Waldorf School, about 20 students were spending the night at a nearby home late Tuesday after state officials urged parents not to drive in the snow.
“They’re doing really well,” Administrator Lisa Grupe said. “They’re just having an extended play date. We all looked like ducks walking in the snow together.”
On Twitter, a second-grade teacher said there were still about 150 students and 50 staff members stranded at Greystone Elementary School in Hoover, Alabama, because of “horrible” road conditions there.
Not that they were all complaining.
“Very exciting day,” teacher Carol McLaughlin tweeted late Tuesday afternoon. “… The kids are being real troopers. : ) I think they think it’s an adventure.”
In Alabama and Georgia, authorities asked motorists to stay off the roads.
“This is a very dangerous situation,” 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 said. “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.
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