Atlanta weather: Thousands stranded after snow, ice storm; Gov. Nathan Deal blames weather service

8:18 PM, Jan 29, 2014   |    comments
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Photo Gallery: Rare snow, ice shock the Deep South
A vehicle ran off the road during a snow storm, Jan. 28, 2014 in Canton, Ga. (Photo: Kelly J. Huff. The Marietta Daily Journal, AP)

ATLANTA (USA TODAY) -- Gov. Nathan Deal, who mobilized the National Guard Wednesday to rescue motorists stranded on ice-bound freeways and to offer them food water and shelter, blamed the National Weather Service predicting that the storm would hit farther south.

See Also: Deep freeze leaves thousands stranded

Deal said the weather service "had continually had modeling showing Atlanta would not be the primary area (of the storm) it would be south of Atlanta."

At one point around noon on Tuesday, he said, key freeway traffic flow indicators went from green to red in about 30 minutes, signaling that traffic had come to a standstill.

The Guard was out in force in Humvees to reach a virtual parking lot on area freeways as desperate drivers either abandoned their vehicles outright or spent up to 24 hours waiting for relief.

Deal, like the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina, declared a state of emergency.

Deal said the goal was to reach every stranded driver "and make sure we have enough shelter to get them off the roads and get them someplace warm."

He said those who chose to stay in their cars, were being offered food, water and blankets.

The governor said a major headache was 18-wheeler trucks that had jack-knifed on several roadways and prevented traffic from moving.

As the paralysis set in, some commuters pleaded for help via cellphones while still holed up in their cars, while others gave up and trudged miles to their home.

Deal also said there had been "significant progress" in rescuing schoolkids stranded at schools in counties around Atlanta, but that no children were still stuck on buses. At one point, he said, 99 school buses from Atlanta schools were trapped in the icy gridlock.

He said, however, that at least 2,000 still remained at schools in Atlanta, Fulton, Cobb and Douglas counties.

Deal said the guard and state troopers had either taken the children to their homes, or had escorted school buses through the jammed streets

Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist with the University of Georgia and current president of the American Meteorological Society, said neither meteorologists in general, nor the specific forecast for the Atlanta area, were to blame.

"The buses had a tough time getting kids home, but meteorologists should not be thrown under the bus," he said.

Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed also said that the top priority for the city is getting food, water and gasoline to "a lot of people" still stranded in their car on ice-locked highways.

In addition, Reed told reporters that while many freeways remained paralyzed, the city's priority routes to hospitals and for fire fighters were open and functioning.

He said there had been 791 traffic accidents during the period, with no fatalities.

The mayor defended his city's response to the storm, saying one million people got out of the city, but that many got stuck when they hit the interstates, which are maintained by the state.

"This has been an ordeal for everyone," said Georgia DOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale. "This storm and the bitter temperatures have caused so much difficulty, discomfort and anxiety for so many Georgians. We believe roadways will be restored to some level of normalcy today but would encourage the public to remain home, preferably all day."

That was little relief, however, for the harrowing experience faced by hundreds of motorists. Police in suburban Atlanta say one officer helped assist the safe delivery of a baby girl on a gridlocked interstate Tuesday after snow and ice brought traffic to a crawl.

Sandy Springs Police Capt. Steve Rose told The Associated Press that a traffic officer arrived on the scene only minutes ahead of the infant.

"Fortunately he had his emergency lights on and people got out of his way," Rose said. "The delivery was pretty flawless."

Only about two-to-three inches of snow fell in Atlanta during the storm, but it was enough to ground hundreds of flights at Hartsfield International Airport - the U.S.'s busiest -- and paralyze the metropolitan area.

Debbie Hartwig, a waitress at an Atlanta area waffle house, said she managed to keep her cool thanks in part to the kindness of strangers after 10 hours on the road.

"I'm calm," she said. "That's all you can be. People are helping each other out, people are moving cars that have spun out or had become disabled. It's been really nice. I even saw people passing out hot coffee and granola bars."

"This was, hands down, the worst day of my life," Evan McLean of Canton, who told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he "was literally stranded on Canton road for two and half hours without moving an inch."

Cobb County chairman Tim Lee was among drivers stuck on I-75 in his truck north of the Chattahoochee River.

He said residents were calling him to request salt trucks, but he saw a silver lining in the lengthy gridlock.

"The good news is that traffic is so jammed up they can't get going too fast, so there's a lot fender benders but there's no injuries," he told The Marietta Daily Journal.

One traveler who had arrived Tuesday afternoon at Atlanta's airport from Maine spent five hours in traffic without moving when an WXIA reporter caught up with him.

He offered some Back East advice to Georgia's highway maintenance teams.

"You should put some salt on the road," he said. "When it's going to be wet and cold, get the salt trucks on the road. It's not hard."

While the storm that gripped much of the Deep South has moved into the Atlantic, there is little chance of significant melting of untreated roads and bridges Wednesday, according to Weather Channel meteorologist Nick Wiltgen.

Highs may struggle to reach the freezing mark in cities such as Atlanta and Charleston, S.C., he said.. Areas near the Gulf Coast such as Mobile and Pensacola may not rise much above freezing, even if a few rays of sunshine peek through the clouds later in the day.

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