ATLANTA, Ga. -- It was just a few inches of snow, but for the normally balmy South, enough of it fell to throw life into turmoil for millions of people from Louisiana to Virginia on Wednesday, trapping Atlanta motorists overnight on highways and forcing hundreds of children to camp overnight at school.
Some of the worst disruptions were in Georgia, where schoolchildren were marooned on buses or stayed overnight in classrooms or gyms. Some workers in downtown Atlanta slept in their offices, and many traffic-trapped motorists simply trudged home in the cold.
More than 1,000 accidents were reported. State troopers rescued stranded motorists, and National Guard troops made food deliveries. Social media erupted with parents incensed that they were forced to drive through the storm to retrieve their children.
Emergency crews were still rescuing some motorists Wednesday morning.
Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., were virtually shut down. Workers who hoped to rush home at midday Tuesday to beat the snow instead created traffic gridlock just as the storm was hitting. Parents frantically drove to schools and buses and struggled to get children safely home. Atlanta reported nearly 800 traffic accidents, and Georgia state police logged nearly 1,400 wrecks, with at least one person reported dead and at least 130 injured.
Stranded motorists pleaded for help in cell phone calls. Governors in North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Louisiana declared states of emergency.
In Sandy Springs, Ga., just north of Atlanta, an expectant father and a local police officer helped a mother deliver a baby inside a car on Interstate 285 around 5 p.m. Tuesday after the couple was unable to make it to a hospital through clogged traffic. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the mother and baby Grace were doing fine after paramedics took the family to the hospital.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said state National Guard troops had been sent to highways to try to move stranded school buses. Georgia state troopers were dispatched to schools to help retrieve students who had spent the night, he said.
A Guard spokesman said troops handed out military Meals Ready To Eat, or MREs, to motorists and provided water to a stranded family to make formula for a baby.
By mid-morning, Atlanta school officials said all schoolchildren were "in a safe place," either under care at schools or at refuges as fire stations to await transport home. But that barely cooled tempers on social media, where parents blasted school officials for not canceling classes as soon as forecasters predicted the storm.
"I want heads [to roll] tomorrow," one parent posted on the Facebook site for the DeKalb County School District in Georgia. He complained that his wife still had not returned home by midnight after fighting her way through snow and traffic to try to retrieve the couple’s child from school.
"I shudder to think of the lawsuits if any students, faculty or parents are seriously hurt or even killed because you were so foolish as to ignore weather reports and not cancel school," another parent wrote on the site.
On Instagram, a Georgia parent wrote, "My baby [was] stuck at school, because Marietta High School was crazy and did not let school out early!"
Atlanta city officials had assured the public that they had learned the harsh lessons of a 2011 ice storm that paralyzed the city. "Atlanta, we are ready for the snow," Mayor Kasim Reed posted on his Twitter account Tuesday.
But by Wednesday morning, Reed’s Twitter messages sought to reassure angry residents that the city was working hard to plow roads and get everyone home safely:
"We know you want to get home, and we are going to work all day until you can return safely."
Reed said "a lot of people" were still stranded on highways Wednesday morning, but he was not certain how many. City bus service was shut down, and people waited in vain on icy train platforms for trains that were late or never arrived.
Asked how he would rate the city’s handling of the storm, the mayor replied: "I’m not thinking about a grade right now. I’m thinking about getting people out of their cars."
Tractor-trailers jackknifed on Interstate 65 in central Alabama. Bridges as far south as Florida were shut down by ice, and the long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana was closed to traffic by ice.
On Facebook, SnowedOutAtlanta sprung up with nearly 40,000 members. Some homeowners posted offers to host stranded travelers in spare bedrooms. People shared information on grocery stores and gas stations that were open, with updates on how much milk, bread and bottled water remained on store shelves. Others asked for places to stay.