Winter storm causes wrecks, gridlock in the South

Published On: Jan 28 2014 09:59:29 PM EST   Updated On: Jan 28 2014 10:14:16 PM EST
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. On Tuesday, it took her 40 minutes to move just three blocks. 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 on Tuesday, 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.

"As I drove, I prayed the whole way," said Jane Young, an 80-year-old pastor's wife who was traveling in Austin, Texas, before dawn on her way to volunteer at a polling station when sleet began falling. "I said, `Lord, put your hands on mine and guide me. This is your car now.'"

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. For children whose parents were unable to pick them up, the district was using four-wheel-drive vehicles from various agencies to get the students home, said Sevier County Assistant Superintendent Debra Cline. All the affected children had made it home by Tuesday afternoon, according to news media reports.

In Knox County, several buses had trouble, sliding off roads, and one collided with a car. Dispatchers said no one was hurt.

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.

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 on Tuesday 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.

Phil Sellers leads walking tours rain or shine of Savannah's oak-shaded squares, bronze Civil War monuments and Victorian neighborhoods. But come ice and snow, he will stay inside.

"Usually what happens in Savannah is everything stops immediately when you first see a snowflake," he said. "Everyone's jaw drops."

At grocery store across the region, shoppers mostly cleaned out shelves of bottled water, bread, milk and boxed fire logs.

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."