Southbound traffic on Interstate 575 between Georgia Highway 20 and Riverstone Parkway is bottlenecked Jan. 28 in Canton, Ga. / Kelly J. Huff, AP
ATLANTA - The arctic blast crippling much of the deep South has caused at least 13 deaths and created havoc for millions, prompting six states to declare emergencies and bringing criticism on the National Weather Service for its forecasting.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who mobilized the National Guard on Wednesday to rescue Atlanta-area motorists stranded on snarled, icebound freeways, blamed the state's early response on the Weather Service, which predicted the chaotic storm would hit farther south.
Tuesday's snowfall brought just 2.6 inches of snow to Atlanta, but it was a one-day record and enough to hamstring the region, creating nightmares for commuters, truckers, students and their families. Hundreds of flights were grounded at Hartsfield International Airport - the nation's busiest.
Deal declared a state of emergency for Georgia. Similar declarations were issued for Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina, At least nine people died in traffic accidents, including five in Alabama, two in North Carolina and 1 in Florida. Four people, including a three-month-old infant, were killed early Tuesday in a Mississippi mobile home fire near Fulton caused by a faulty space heater.
Some commuters in the Atlanta metro area pleaded for help via cellphones while holed up in their cars; others gave up and trudged miles to their homes. Deal said there had been "significant progress" rescuing kids stranded at schools in counties around Atlanta, but at least 2,000 remained at schools in Atlanta, Fulton, Cobb and Douglas Counties.
Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist with the University of Georgia and president of the American Meteorological Society, said neither meteorologists nor the forecast for the Atlanta area was to blame.
"The buses had a tough time getting kids home, but meteorologists should not be thrown under the bus," he said.
At 3:39 a.m. Tuesday, Marshall said the weather service issued a winter storm warning for the entire Atlanta metro area, expecting 1-2 inches of snow. "Overall, the Atlanta event was a well-forecasted and well-warned event," he said.
The weather service did say in an online briefing Tuesday morning, "Leave work early if you can to avoid the rush and wintry precipitation combination." Drivers did so, which is what led to the traffic chaos.
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."
Politicians of weather-stricken cities and states often face harsh criticism for slow response to disasters. Deal, a Republican, faces re-election this year. He said his 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."
Along with Deal, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is likely to face scrutiny in the coming days over the handling of the storm.
Today meteorologist Al Roker said the traffic nightmare in Atlanta was caused by "poor planning on the mayor and governor's part." Dalton, Ga., Mayor David Pennington, who's running against Deal for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, said, "Government's primary role is to protect the people; Nathan Deal has failed miserably once again."
"I'm willing to accept whatever blame comes my way," Deal said. "And if I'm responsible for it, I'll accept that."
Reed defended his handling of the situation. "We got 1 million people out of the city of Atlanta in about 12 hours," Reed said. Moreover, the city's response was better than after "Snowmageddon 2011," the winter storm that paralyzed the Atlanta metro that year, Reed said. "Unlike the last event, when we had four pieces of equipment in Atlanta, this time we had 70 pieces of equipment, and we knew how to use it."
Reed said many of stranded motorists were on interstate highways, which are maintained by the state.
"This has been an ordeal for everyone," said Georgia Department of Transportation 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."
A police officer in suburban Atlanta 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 minutes before the infant.
"Fortunately he had his emergency lights on and people got out of his way," Rose said. "The delivery was pretty flawless."
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."
In Alabama, where the storm stranded thousands at work, school or in cars overnight, mass school and business closings remained in Birmingham and Mobile. Gov. Robert Bentley's office said rescue personnel and medics in state aircraft were flying over Jefferson and Shelby counties conducting search and rescue missions for stranded motorists.
Both the timing and the amount of snow was not accurately forecast in Birmingham. Well-known Alabama TV meteorologist James Spann of ABC 33/40 said, "In terms of human impact, yesterday's forecast 'bust' was the most significant for me since January 1982."
"I will say I have never seen this kind of impact on roads with 1 to 2 inches of snow in Alabama in my 35 years as a professional meteorologist. There was clear human suffering as a result of my bad forecast," Spann said.
Louisiana highway officials closed over 20 highways due to icy conditions, including Interstate 10. There were limited flights in and out of New Orleans' Louis Armstrong International Airport.
In South Carolina, state police reported over 800 traffic collisions since Tuesday afternoon. The Arthur Ravenel Bridge linking Charleston and Mount Pleasant on U.S. 17, as well as the bridges linking the two communities on Interstate 526 remained closed Wednesday afternoon. Bridges linking Hilton Head Island to the mainland were also closed for a time at midday Wednesday because of accidents on the icy spans.
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 until Thursday. Most residents are unaccustomed to driving in such conditions.
Jeff Cox, a Dunkin' Donuts store manager in Montgomery, AL., said he fishtailed several times in his Nissan Pathfinder going home from work.
"You feel helpless when your car is going sideways," he said. "We don't get this a lot. I don't think anybody here was really prepared. There was so much ice on the road, you were easily slipping and sliding. The South is just not equipped to have this much ice on the road."
Contributing: Talia Richman, in McLean, Va.; Associated Press
Copyright 2014USA TODAY
Read the original story: Freak Southern storm blamed for at least 13 deaths