Rare winter storm shuts down Atlanta area

City officials caught off guard as commuters spend 24 hours in cars and children sleep in school gyms and stranded buses

After a rare snowfall stopped Atlanta-area commuters in their tracks — forcing many to hunker down in cars overnight or seek other shelter — helicopters were being used to spot stranded drivers so rescuers could get food and water to them.

But things seemed to be slowly returning to normal, or at least less dire, more than 24 hours after the snowstorm began to cripple the city.

In metro Atlanta on Wednesday, some interstates remained jammed with stuck 18-wheelers, but as of Wednesday afternoon, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said all metro Atlanta schoolchildren stuck in buses had been safely returned to their parents.

Thousands of schoolchildren stranded all night long in their classrooms were also reunited with their parents Wednesday.

As the effects of the state, local and federal responses began to be felt, Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed found themselves on the defensive, struggling to answer questions as to why less than 4 inches of snow paralyzed an entire city.

Officials in Atlanta said they were caught off guard when a snowstorm hit their metro area, causing the nation's ninth largest city to grind to a standstill.

Local media outlets drew parallels to a 2011 snowstorm that paralyzed the city for nearly a week.

As the storm began to pick up strength, government employees, private sector workers and Atlanta schoolchildren were all released to go home at the same time, creating a massive traffic jam across the city.

At one point, traffic in the South's business capital was so bad that security guards and office doormen took to the streets to direct cars amid a cacophony of blaring horns. People spent upwards of 15 hours in standstill traffic trying to get home or pick up their children.

Reed said Wednesday that “a lot of people” were still stranded in their cars, and his primary focus was getting the roads cleared and people out of cars and school buses.

Lawrence Connelly spent more than six hours in traffic as he tried to get home from his job at Google in Liquor Springs, outside of Atlanta. Connelly said his commute typically lasts no longer than 25 minutes.

"I turned onto Hurt Road trying to avoid traffic. As I went down the hill, I looked out my back window and I saw the front end of the car behind me hit the guardrail, spin out and drop off the road near a lake," Connelly said, noting on his Facebook page that he was shaken by the experience.

Many cities across the region are not equipped with fleets of salt trucks or snowplows, and it showed. The storm was blamed for dozens of road accidents from Georgia to Texas. Two people died in a car wreck in Alabama.

As many as 50 million people across the region could be affected by the snowfall. Up to 4 inches fell in central Louisiana. And about 3 inches was forecast for parts of Georgia.

Up to 10 inches of snow was expected in the Greenville, N.C., area and along the state's Outer Banks.

On Gulf of Mexico 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.

Four people were killed in a Mississippi mobile home fire blamed on a space heater. And New Orleans' usually merry Bourbon Street was oddly quiet as brass bands and other street performers stayed inside.

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," Virginia Holt said. Her husband added: "Nor the experience."

People in New Orleans who couldn’t make it home abandoned their cars on the highway and sought shelter at local stores and churches that opened their doors to provide people a warm place to sleep.

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

Nationwide, nearly 3,000 airline flights were canceled due to the storm. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world's busiest, was still receiving inbound flights, albeit with delays of up to six hours or more.

The Associated Press. Dexter Mullins contributed to this report.

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Atlanta, Georgia

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