— ATLANTA (AP) — Students camped out with teachers in school gyms or on buses and commuters abandoned cars along the highway to seek shelter in churches, fire stations — even grocery stores — after a rare snowstorm left thousands of unaccustomed Southerners frozen in their tracks.
Tuesday's storm deposited mere inches of snow, barely enough to qualify as a storm up North. And yet it was more than enough to paralyze Deep South cities such as Atlanta and Birmingham, and strand thousands of workers who tried to rush home early only to never make it home at all.
Overnight, the South saw fatal crashes and hundreds of fender-benders. Jackknifed 18-wheelers littered Interstate 65 in central Alabama. Ice shut down bridges on Florida's panhandle and the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, one of the world's longest spans, in Louisiana. Some commuters pleaded for help via cellphones while still holed up in their cars, while others trudged miles home, abandoning their vehicles outright.
Linda Moore spent 12 hours stuck in her car on Interstate 65 south of Birmingham before a firefighter used a ladder to help her cross the median wall and a shuttle bus took her to a hotel where about 20 other stranded motorists spent the night in a conference room.
"I boohooed a lot," she said. "It was traumatic. I'm just glad I didn't have to stay on that Interstate all night, but there are still people out there."
No one knew exactly how many people were stranded, but some employers such as Blue Cross Blue Shield in Alabama had hundreds of people sleeping in offices overnight. Workers watched movies on their laptops, and office cafeterias gave away food.
Atlanta, hub to major corporations and the world's busiest airport, once again found itself unprepared to deal with the chaos — despite assurances that city officials had learned their lessons from a 2011 ice storm that brought the city to its knees. Some residents expressed outrage that more precautions weren't taken this time around and schools and other facilities weren't closed ahead of time. But officials from schools and that state said weather forecasts indicated the area would not see more than a dusting of snow and that it didn't become clear until late Tuesday morning that those were wrong.