Helicopters search for stranded Southern drivers; RDU flights getting back on track

Posted January 29, 2014

— Helicopters took to the skies Wednesday to search for stranded drivers while Humvees delivered food, water and gas — or a ride home — to people who were stuck on roads after a winter storm walloped the Deep South.

Students spent the night on buses or at schools, commuters abandoned their cars or slept in them and interstates turned into parking lots. The problems started when schools, businesses and government offices all let out at the same time.

As people waited in gridlock, snow accumulated, the roads froze, cars ran out of gas and tractor-trailers jackknifed, blocking equipment that could have treated some of the roads. In the chaos, though, there were stories of rescues and kindness.

It wasn't clear exactly how many people were still stranded on the roads a day after the storm paralyzed the region. And the timing of when things would clear and when the highways would thaw was also uncertain because temperatures were not expected to be above freezing.

"We literally would go 5 feet and sit for two hours," said Jessica Troy, who along with a co-worker spent more than 16 hours in her car before finally getting home late Wednesday morning.

Their total trip was about 12 miles.

"I slept for an hour and it was not comfortable," Troy said. "Most people sat the entire night with no food, no water, no bathroom. We saw people who had children. It was a dire situation."

While travel was not that dire in North Carolina, some people did find themselves stranded without a flight out of Raleigh-Durham International Airport Wednesday morning. About half the flights were canceled in the morning hours, but things were getting back to normal as the day progressed.

American Airlines Flight Tracker: Any flight, any airport

"The worst roads we encountered were definitely inside the airport itself. (It) seems like they didn't put down enough salt. Otherwise, it was fine, very little traffic," said driver Michael Troy.

RDU officials said they did put down a salt-sand mix on roads around the airport.

Fayetteville Regional Airport was open Wednesday with limited taxiway access. Delta and United Airlines flights should resume Thursday, a spokesman said.

The rare snowstorm deposited mere inches of snow in Georgia and Alabama, but there were more than 1,000 fender-benders. At least six people died in traffic accidents, including five in Alabama, and four people were killed early Tuesday in a Mississippi mobile home fire blamed on a faulty space heater.

Elsewhere, Virginia's coast had up to 10 inches of snow, North Carolina had up to 8 inches on parts of the Outer Banks, South Carolina had about 4 inches and highways were shut down in Louisiana.

In Atlanta and Birmingham, thousands of cars lined interstate shoulders, abandoned at the height of the traffic jam. Some sat askew at odd angles, apparently left after crashes. 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."

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.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley's office said rescuers and medics in helicopters were flying over Jefferson and Shelby counties conducting search and rescue missions.

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 were outraged that more precautions weren't taken this time around and schools and other facilities weren't closed ahead of time.

"They are claiming that they didn't know the weather was going to be bad," Jeremy Grecco, of Buford, said in an email. "They failed to dispatch these trucks prior to the road conditions becoming unfavorable."

Officials from schools and the 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.

Still, Georgia leaders were aware of public angst and tried to mitigate it.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed took some of the blame for schools, businesses and government all letting out at the same time, and he said they should have staggered their closings.

"I'm not thinking about a grade right now," Reed said when asked about the city's response. "I'm thinking about getting people out of their cars."

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who faces re-election in November, fended off criticism about the government's response to the storm. He said emergency officials prioritized to rescue stranded children on buses first and were aiming to make contact with all stranded motorists by Wednesday.

"Our goal today is that there will not be anybody stranded in a vehicle on our interstates that has not been offered the opportunity to go to a place of safety and security," Deal told reporters at a Statehouse news conference.

Ryan Willis, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, Ga., said temperatures were still below freezing Wednesday and they were to dip back into the teens overnight. Thursday will offer much warmer weather, around the upper 30s to lower 40s.

If there was a bright spot in the epic gridlock, it was the Southern-style graciousness. Strangers opened up their homes and volunteers served coffee and snacks to the traffic-bound.

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."

Stephanie Reynolds, a second-grade teacher, spent the night with about 10 students and two dozen co-workers at Meadow View Elementary School in Alabaster, Ala. Many of the children's parents were stuck in cars in roadways and unable to pick up their kids, she said.

Reynolds comforted crying children, played games and did lesson plans for two weeks. A dance party helped fill up a few minutes, and the children ate pizza for dinner and biscuits and gravy for breakfast.

"The students have been here so long: all day yesterday, overnight and now," Reynolds said. "I'm going on no sleep right now. I didn't even try. I figured since I was here I might as well be productive."

Heroes also had their day. Police in suburban Atlanta say one of their own helped assist the safe delivery of a baby girl on a gridlocked interstate Tuesday afternoon after snow and ice brought traffic to a crawl.


Associated Press writers Kate Brumback, Ray Henry, Phillip Lucas, Bill Cormier, Bill Barrow and Don Schanche in Atlanta; Mike Graczyk in Houston; Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C.; Kevin McGill and Stacey Plaisance in New Orleans; Jay Reeves in Montgomery, Ala.; Brock Vergakis in Norfolk, Va.; and Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans contributed to this report. Bynum reported from Savannah.


This story is closed for comments.

Oldest First
View all
  • ConservativeVoter Jan 30, 2014

    Atlanta's traffic is bad without having snow and ice on the ground. Much like Raleigh during the ice storm in 2006.

  • btneast Jan 30, 2014

    View quoted thread

    ...and how is that Mass Transit called Marta working out, as far as alleviating traffic congestion?

  • BlahBlahBlahBlahBlah Jan 30, 2014

    Why would Atlanta spend millions on mass is the worst traffic pattern even on the best days....6 million people!! That is why..

  • sinenomine Jan 30, 2014

    The reason snow in Atlanta is such a big story is that it's the lead on CNN and CNN is located in - guess quick - Atlanta.

    Addressing CNN's criticisms:

    - Why would Atlanta spend billions on mass transit when the people don't want it in order to provide mobility in the once every thirty years snowstorm?

    - Why spend millions on snow removal equipment which usually isn't needed?

    As I see it about the only thing Atlanta did wrong that it could have done right with more foresight was letting everybody go from work or school at once rather than on a staggered basis. Raleigh learned that lesson back in, I think, 2005 or so. My hometown of Washington DC has staggered the release of US government employees for decades.

  • BlahBlahBlahBlahBlah Jan 30, 2014

    View quoted thread

    I remember that also...Wake Co Schools made a good call on Tuesday and they obviously learned form that experience...Atlanta learned nothing from their 2011 nightmare..Good Call Wake County School Officials...

  • ScubaDubaDoo Jan 29, 2014

    Atlanta? Is it just me or did we have EXACTLY EXACTLY EXACTLY the same thing happen a few years back in Raleigh, perhaps on a smaller scale. Forecast was accurate, everyone-schools, businesses, let out at the same time early afternoon. Roads clogged, everyone stuck on the roads over night, into the next day, or if lucky in a store or school gym, What do we have to do to in order to stop repeating history?

  • pumkinbug87 Jan 29, 2014

    Sooo... reading this... I may or may not have shed a tear. Here's to you Heroes of Atlanta.

  • Whatev333 Jan 29, 2014

    Obviously, the South does not manufacture enough cheese. In Wisconsin, where I lived for 20 years, they are now treating the roads with cheese brine. With that being said, they did have a massive backup on I 90 a few years back where there were a couple thousand stranded. I would guess if you are not prepared for it (always carried extra food, water, medication and a down sleeping bag in my car up there) it might be traumatic. At least they did the right thing by getting all the scared kids out of the mess first.

  • OmegaBaby Jan 29, 2014

    @SNOWL - To be fair to the city of Atlanta, it sounds like city streets were okay. It was the interstates that were left untreated. And those were the responsibility of the state.

    But the response by the governor is bizarre. How on earth could this storm have taken them by surprise when it was accurately forecast so many days in advance? I suspect they just weren't paying attention, and that's why they were surprised.

  • DontVote4LiarsCheatsOrThieves Jan 29, 2014

    busyb97 - "It was traumatic??? Traumatic would be having been in a horrible accident and injured. Being..."

    Additionally, being stranded in one's car for hours at a time, especially if gas has run out and the battery's gone dead from trying to run the heater to keep warm with no visible way to safety, one's life can not only SEEM to be in danger, it quickly CAN become in danger.
    Been there and done that. It was very frightening.