Washington (AFP) – The usually balmy U.S. South was paralyzed Wednesday by a freak snowstorm that forced thousands of children to shelter in schools overnight and left thousands of motorists stranded on icy roads.
Schools were closed Wednesday in towns and cities across the region, as authorities struggled to shake off Tuesday’s unusual 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 Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and other states famous as havens from the northern winter.
Temperatures in Atlanta fell to 14 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 Celsius), the coldest in memory for many residents. New Orleans shivered at 30 Fahrenheit.
Traffic was still snarled in many places, more than 24 hours after the backups began.
Thousands of desperate motorists ditched their cars to seek shelter at roadside shops and convenience stores, where they slept on floors overnight.
Georgia said at least one person had been killed in the cold snap and that more than 1,200 traffic accidents were reported.
Baby born on highway
A woman gave birth inside a car on one of the long stretches of snow-covered traffic jams in Atlanta, WSBT and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. She named her daughter Grace.
Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia 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 told reporters.
“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 buses, only to become stuck on roads for hours during the ride home from school.
Only about two to three inches (five to eight centimeters) 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 ice and snow.
Compounding the problem was that many roads had not been pre-treated with sand and salt to make them more navigable.
State police and national guard officials said they were working 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 Transportation Commissioner 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 Georgia had redeployed equipment to the hardest-hit areas, including 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 urged residents to stay off the roads to give officials a chance to resolve lingering crises from the disastrous commute.
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, was 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 Atlanta Hawks’ home game against the Detroit Pistons has been postponed because of the freak snowstorm, the NBA said.
AFP Photo/Daniel Shirey