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Modest snowfall creates chaos in Atlanta

Thousands of Atlanta students stranded all night long in their schools were reunited with their parents Wednesday, while rescuers rushed to deliver blankets, food, gas and a ride home to countless shivering motorists stopped cold by a storm that paralyzed the business capital of the South with less than 3 inches of snow.

As National Guardsmen and state troopers fanned out, Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal found themselves on the defensive, acknowledging the storm preparations could have been better. But Deal also blamed forecasters, saying he was led to believe it wouldn't be so bad.

The icy weather wreaked similar havoc across much of the South, closing schools and highways, grounding flights and contributing to at least a dozen deaths from traffic accidents and a mobile home fire.

Yet it was Atlanta, home to major corporations and the world's busiest airport, that was Exhibit A for how a Southern city could be sent reeling by winter weather that, in the North, might be no more than an inconvenience.

The mayor admitted the city could have directed schools, businesses and government offices to stagger their closings on Tuesday afternoon, as the storm began, rather than dismissing everyone at the same time.

The result was gridlock on freeways that are jammed even on normal days. Countless vehicles were stranded and many of them abandoned. Officials said 239 children spent Tuesday night aboard school buses; thousands of others stayed overnight in their schools.

One woman's 12-mile commute home took 16 hours. Another woman gave birth while stuck in traffic; police arrived just in time to help. Drivers who gave up trying to get home took shelter at fire stations, churches and grocery stores.

One traffic death was reported in the Atlanta area — that of a woman killed in a crash.

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

National Guardsmen in Humvees, state troopers and transportation crews delivered food and other relief, and by Wednesday night, Deal said all Atlanta-area schoolchildren were back home with their parents.

Atlanta was crippled by an ice storm in 2011, and officials had vowed not to be caught unprepared again. But in this case, few closings or other measures were ordered ahead of time.

Deal, who is up for re-election in November, said warnings could have been posted along highways earlier and farther out Tuesday. But he also fended off criticism.

"I would have acted sooner, and I think we learn from that and then we will act sooner the next time," Deal told reporters.

"But we don't want to be accused of crying wolf. Because if we had been wrong, y'all would have all been in here saying, 'Do you know how many millions of dollars you cost the economies of the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia by shutting down businesses all over this city and this state?'"

Deal faulted government forecasters, saying they warned that the storm would strike south of Atlanta and the city would get no more than a dusting of snow.

However, the National Weather Service explicitly cautioned on Monday that snow-covered roads "will make travel difficult or impossible." And around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, the agency issued a winter storm warning for metro Atlanta and cautioned people not to travel except in an emergency.

Around the time the traffic jam started, Deal and Reed were at an award ceremony recognizing the mayor as the "2014 Georgian of the Year." Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor left before 1:30 p.m. and was in constant contact with emergency officials.

Among the commuters trapped in the gridlock was Jessica Troy, who described her commute home to the suburb of Smyrna as a slow-motion obstacle course on sheets of ice.

"We literally would go 5 feet and sit for two hours," Troy said after she and a co-worker who rode with her finally made it home about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. They spent more than 16 hours in the car, covering 12 miles.

The standstill gave Troy time to call her parents and send text messages to friends, letting them know she was OK. By 3 a.m. her car was stuck on a freeway entrance ramp. She put it in park, left the heat running and tried to get some sleep.

"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."

After daybreak, a few good Samaritans appeared, going car-to-car with bottles of water and cookies. Traffic started moving again about 8:30.

 

The Canadian Press

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