ATLANTA (AP) — 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.
Highways surrounding the city that rarely sees snow were converted into treacherous paths of ice Tuesday, causing hundreds of cars to slide off the road, slam into each other, or crawl bumper to bumper in gridlock. Children were stranded at schools with their teachers, while Gov. Nathan Deal made a late-night announcement that he would send state troopers to rescue them.
Deal said state and local officials also would try to rescue those stranded along highways that were at a standstill even close to midnight.
The rare Southern winter storm dropped more than 3 inches of snow in some areas of north Georgia, while 2.3 inches were recorded at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, said National Weather Service meteorologist Ryan Willis.
While such amounts barely qualify as a storm in the north, it was enough to paralyze the Deep South. 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. Hundreds of wrecks happened from Georgia to Texas. Two people died in an accident in Alabama.
In Atlanta, the gridlock was so bad, a baby girl was delivered alongside Interstate 285, said Capt. Steve Rose, a spokesman for Sandy Springs police in suburban north Atlanta. He said an officer made it to the mother and her husband in time to help with the delivery, which he described as "flawless." There were no complications and the family was taken to a hospital.
What would have been a 45-minute commute on a typical day in Atlanta turned into a more-than-five-hour journey for Lisa Webster, who is five months pregnant and was traveling with her screaming 16-month-old son.
Webster spent about four hours crawling in her car along Interstate 75 northbound from Midtown Atlanta to Marietta — "I think we were going maybe 2 miles per hour," she said — before deciding to park at a local grocery store and walk. Hoofing it the remaining half-mile home turned out to be the highlight of her commute.
"We were out, we were stretching our legs we were moving faster than all of the stopped cars," she said. "I could see an end in sight."
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. Numerous students were stranded in Georgia's Cobb County in suburban Atlanta, said school district spokesman Jay Dillon. Bus drivers spent hours trying to ferry students home after they were dismissed two hours early, he said.
At Barber Middle School in the Atlanta suburb of Acworth, principal Lisa Williams said 972 students had made it home, but five were still left as of 9:40 p.m. as their parents struggled through the gridlock to get them.
"We are in the front office playing bingo and eating snacks," she said. "We're just enjoying the night until they get here."
About 40 teachers and other school employees planned to spend the night rather than risk the dangerous ride home, Williams said.
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.
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