Washington (AFP) – The usually balmy South was paralyzed Wednesday by a freak snowstorm that forced thousands of children to shelter in their schools overnight and left hundreds of thousands of motorists stranded on area roads.
Schools were closed Wednesday in towns and cities across the region, as authorities struggled to shake off Tuesday’s unaccustomed snowfall and freezing temperatures.
Emergency declarations were issued in several southern states, as a result of the wintry conditions felt as far south as Texas and affecting Florida, Alabama, South Carolina and other states famous as havens from the northern winter.
Temperatures in Atlanta fell to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest in memory for many residents.
Television footage showed traffic still snarled in many places on Wednesday, more than 24 hours after the backups began forming.
Thousands of desperate motorists ditched their cars to seek shelter at roadside shops and convenience stores, where they slept on floors overnight.
Hundreds of traffic accidents clogged highways around the region Tuesday — some involving lumbering yellow school buses that were unable to get to schools to retrieve students at the end of the school day.
Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia — where officials said the storm caused at least one death — on Wednesday expressed his gratitude to school staff who stayed with students overnight.
“I want to say, at this point, a thank you to the teachers, to the staff, to the resource officers at those schools,” he said at a press conference. “Many of them were there all night and made sure that if the children were staying in their school, they were safe.”
Perhaps even less fortunate were children whose drivers succeeded in getting them onto the buses, only to become stuck on roads for hours during the ride from school.
Only about two to three inches of snow fell in Atlanta on Tuesday, with similar amounts around the region. But that was enough to create hazardous road conditions for locals not used to driving on it.
Compounding the problem is that many roads had not been pre-treated with sand and salt to make them more navigable.
The snowfall also was heaviest as schools were letting out for the day, and as workers were fleeing downtown offices.
State police and national guard officials said they were working Wednesday to clear travel lanes, and reunite stranded school children with their families.
“Troopers are working 16 to 20 hour shifts,” said Mark McDonough, head of the Georgia state patrol.
News reports said police were still trying to rescue motorists stranded on the sides of roads, many of whom had been forced to tough out the night in their vehicles.
Georgia’s Commissioner for Transportation, Keith Golden, said officials have redoubled their efforts to treat and unblock roads.
“We have had crews working throughout the entire state,” he said adding that the Peach State had redeployed equipment to the hardest hit areas.
“By this afternoon, we will have about 70 snow plow trucks out working,” he said.
“We have been treating the roads most of the evening,” he said adding that crews were “making good progress” in clearing the roads of abandoned vehicles.
Meanwhile, Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed pleaded with residents to stay off the roads Wednesday to give officials the chance to resolve lingering crises from Tuesday’s disastrous commute.
“We urge the public to stay home as much as possible today to allow our crews to make our roads safe, passable and fully open for business as soon as possible,” said Reed, adding that the first priority for city officials “is ensuring the safety of all residents.
Some area residents were incensed that the government did not have the foresight to cancel classes ahead of the start of the school day.
“Kids are still stranded in some schools here in Atlanta,” one Twitter user wrote, showing a photo of an auditorium filled with elementary school kids watching movies on a giant screen.
One small silver lining, officials said, is that the crisis brought out the best in their citizens, some of whom opened their homes to shelter stranded strangers overnight.
“Neighbors are helping neighbors and strangers — people they don’t know,” Deal said.
“That is typical of what Georgians do to help people that find themselves in difficult situations,” the governor.
AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards