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Winter storm causes wrecks, gridlock in the South

By Ray Henry & Russ Bynum

Associated Press

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 06:30 p.m. HST, Jan 28, 2014


ATLANTA » The mad rush began at the first sight of snow: Across the Atlanta area, schools let out early and commuters left for home after lunch, instantly creating gridlock so severe that security guards and doormen took to the streets to direct cars amid a cacophony of blaring horns.

Georgia State University student Alex Tracy looked on with amusement.

"My family is from up north and we're used to driving in the snow and stuff, and seeing everyone freak out, sliding and stuff, it's pretty funny," Tracy said.

Mary McEneaney was not as amused with her commute from a fundraising job at Georgia Tech in Midtown Atlanta to her home about five miles away — normally a 20 to 40-minute drive, depending on traffic. It took her 40 minutes to move just three blocks today. She made it home three hours later.

"I had to stop and go to the bathroom at the hotel," she said. "At that rate I knew I wasn't going to make it until I got home."

A winter storm that would probably be no big deal in the North all but paralyzed the Deep South today, bringing snow, ice and teeth-chattering cold, with temperatures in the teens in some places.

Many folks across the region don't know how to drive in snow, and many cities don't have big fleets of salt trucks or snowplows, and it showed. Hundreds of wrecks happened from Georgia to Texas. Two people died in an accident in Alabama.

In Atlanta, the gridlock was so bad, a baby girl was delivered alongside Interstate 285, said Capt. Steve Rose, a spokesman for Sandy Springs police in suburban north Atlanta. He said an officer made it to the mother and her husband in time to help with the delivery and both parents and baby were OK.

What would have been a 45-minute commute on a typical day in Atlanta turned into a more-than-five-hour journey for Lisa Webster, who is five months pregnant and was traveling with her screaming 16-month-old son.

Webster spent about four hours crawling in her car along Interstate 75 northbound from Midtown Atlanta to Marietta — "I think we were going maybe 2 miles per hour," she said — before deciding at a local grocery store and walk. Hoofing it the remaining half-mile home turned out to be the highlight of her commute.

"We were out, we were stretching our legs we were moving faster than all of the stopped cars," she said. "I could see an end in sight."

As many as 50 million people across the region could be affected by the time the snow stops on Wednesday. Up to 4 inches of snow fell in central Louisiana, and about 3 inches was forecast for parts of Georgia. Up to 10 inches was expected in the Greenville, N.C., area and along the state's Outer Banks.

On the Gulf Shores beaches in Alabama, icicles hung from palm trees. Hundreds of students in the northeastern part of the state faced spending the night in gyms or classrooms because the roads were too icy.

In Tennessee's Sevier County, some buses turned around as road conditions worsened and brought the children back to school. Numerous students were stranded in Georgia's Cobb County in suburban Atlanta, said school district spokesman Jay Dillon. Bus drivers spent hours trying to ferry students home after they were dismissed two hours early, he said.

At Barber Middle School in the Atlanta suburb of Acworth, principal Lisa Williams said 972 students had made it home, but five were still left as of 9:40 p.m. as their parents struggled through the gridlock to get them.

"We are in the front office playing bingo and eating snacks," she said. "We're just enjoying the night until they get here."

About 40 teachers and other school employees planned to spend the night rather than risk the dangerous ride home, Williams said.

The governors of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi declared states of emergency. Four people were killed in a Mississippi mobile home fire blamed on a space heater.

New Orleans' merry Bourbon Street in the French Quarter was oddly quiet as brass bands and other street performers stayed indoors.

Lee and Virginia Holt of Wayne, Pa., walked into Cafe du Monde — a New Orleans landmark known for its beignets and cafe au lait — after finding the National World War II Museum closed because of the weather.

"We understand they don't have the equipment to prepare the roads," she said. Her husband added: "Nor the experience."

Snow covered Atlanta's statues of civil rights heroes, and snowplows that rarely leave the garage rolled out onto the city's streets. They didn't seem to do much good; for commuters unaccustomed to driving on snow-slicked roads, driving was nearly impossible.

In Atlanta, cars were packed bumper-to-bumper, green lights came and went — and traffic didn't move an inch, McEneaney said. She decided to take side streets and, when necessary, shifted into lower gear because of the slippery conditions.

"As long as you went slowly, the roads were OK," she said.

Webster was thankful that she and her son had food and snacks stored in the car, and said she'll think twice before griping over another 45-minute commute.

"I won't be angry ever again," she said, "Today was definitely one for the books."

Georgia State Patrol spokesman Gordy Wright said troopers responded to more than 500 crashes throughout the state. Wright said 65 injuries were reported, but no fatalities.

Atlanta police spokesman John Chafee said officers had responded to more than 285 crashes since 1:30 p.m., when snow began coating the city.

Many Southerners also lack the winter tools that northerners take for granted — such as snow shovels. At a hardware store in the Georgia town of Cumming, shovels were in short supply, but manager Tom Maron said feed scoops — often used in barns — could be substituted.

Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; Pensacola, Fla.; Virginia Beach, Va.; and New Orleans — popular warm-weather tourist destinations where visitors can usually golf and play tennis in shirt sleeves or light jackets this time of year — were expecting ice and snow today and Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in the Midwest, dangerous cold continued to grip the region even as the storm moved south. Many schools closed for the second straight day. In Minnesota, forecasters said wind chills could reach 35 to 50 degrees below zero.

At Oak Mountain Intermediate School near Birmingham, Ala., principal Pat LeQuier said about 230 of the school's fourth- and fifth-graders and nearly all teachers and staff members were still on campus by late afternoon, and some could wind up spending the night since parents were stuck in traffic or at work.

"We have a toasty building, a fully stocked kitchen, and I'm not worried," LeQuier said.

In Savannah, residents braced for a winter whiplash, barely 24 hours after the coastal city hit a T-shirt-friendly 73 degrees. Less than a quarter-inch of ice and up to an inch of snow were possible in a city that has seen very little snow on its manicured squares in the past 25 years.

Savannah had 3.6 inches of snow in December 1989, a dusting of 0.2 inches in February 1996 and 0.9 inches in February 2010.

Nationwide, more than 3,200 airline flights were canceled.

In Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp, the alligators burrowed into the mud to keep warm.

"Their metabolism slows down so they're able to not breathe as often, so they don't have to come to the surface as often," said Susan Heisey, a supervisory ranger at the national wildlife refuge. "These alligators have been on this earth a long time and they've made it through."

Associated Press writers Kate Brumback and Ray Henry 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.






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