ATLANTA — As Georgia nursed a hangover from a freak winter storm, Gov. Nathan Deal took responsibility Thursday for poor preparation that led to massive gridlock in and around Atlanta, forcing drivers to sleep in their cars overnight or abandon the vehicles along slick, snow-covered roads.
Most schools and offices across the area remained closed because of icy roads. Uniformed state and local police escorted motorists back to hundreds of abandoned vehicles along the interstate system.
Freezing weather across the South led to more than 5,000 flight cancellations and delays, officials say. The Georgia State Patrol reported more than 1,460 traffic accidents between Tuesday morning and Wednesday night, with more than 175 injuries. Thousands of children had to stay overnight at schools, or even in school buses, on Tuesday night.
At a hastily called news conference Thursday, Deal apologized for the state's response. "I accept responsibility for the fact that we did not make preparation early enough to avoid these consequences," he said. "I'm not going to look for a scapegoat. I am the governor. The buck stops with me."
On Thursday, two days after the storm dropped less than 3 inches of snow on Atlanta, abandoned cars and trucks littered the freeways. Emergency workers used four-wheel-drive vehicles to help motorists recover their vehicles and provide them with gas to get home. Officials also created a database to help drivers find cars that had been towed to impound lots.
By midday, traffic was jammed heading out of the city on Interstate 75 South. Along the highways, spun-out cars that looked destined for junkyards dotted the roadsides.
Some drivers described harrowing moments trapped inside their vehicles Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
As the hours clicked away and the snow continued to fall, Cathy Smith-Curry prayed, ate her leftover lunch salad and talked to her family, including her ex-husband. Safe inside her Nissan Altima, she imagined the worst: What would happen if she just left her car on Interstate 285, as so many other motorists were doing, and walked the remaining 12 miles home to Douglasville?
"My gut fear was, what if I slipped and fell in the ice and nobody sees me and I freeze to death?" she said Thursday from her home, after spending 21 hours on the road. "You learn what you're made of."
Larry Labbe and his wife, Nancy, tried to pick up their 5-year-old son Ryan from school in Roswell, usually a 45-minute drive. After 10 hours on the road Tuesday, they weren't about to venture back into the snowy chaos. So they bunked down at the school, along with their son, 19 other children, four other parents, two teachers and two staffers.
"The kids were having a blast," Labbe, the fire marshal at Georgia Tech, said Thursday.
Their journey home Wednesday was an adventure too: They got stuck in the snow, two out-of-control cars slid into Labbe's truck, and the family caught a ride home with a friendly tow-truck driver — "an angel," Labbe said.
All the time, Labbe worried about Nancy, who is 12 weeks' pregnant — especially after hearing about a woman who gave birth inside her car during the height of the storm.
"I could just see us stuck on the highway for hours and hours, like so many other people,'' Labbe said.
Mascaro reported from Atlanta and Zucchino from North Carolina. Times staff writer John M. Glionna in Las Vegas contributed to this report.