ATLANTA — Light snow was falling when Samantha Avers left Duluth, a northeast Atlanta suburb, on Tuesday afternoon. She figured she would be home quickly, for it was only a 30- to 45-minute drive.
Twenty-two hours later, Avers, an account manager who had just moved to balmy Atlanta from northern Virginia, wearily parked in her Smyrna neighborhood Wednesday morning. She had been stranded in hellish snowstorm traffic, napped in her car in the middle of a freeway, eaten fruit from her Superman lunch box, watched "Private Practice" on her iPad and drank a gas station beer from a coffee cup.
Hers was just one of the horror stories from the great Atlanta snow-out of 2014.
Forecasters had warned of a freak Southern snowstorm, but schools and offices remained open Tuesday. Mass chaos and gridlock ensued when offices closed early and an exodus of midday commuters headed home.
Less than 3 inches of snow brought the city to a freezing halt. Children camped out in schools or on buses. Hundreds of motorists were marooned for hours on highways and onramps; some abandoned their cars and walked home through the snow. Workers spent the night in their offices.
One woman delivered a baby inside a car stuck on a frozen highway, aided by her husband and a police officer. She named the girl Grace.
Georgia National Guard troops delivered military meals and water to stranded motorists. Other troops and police rescued children from schools and delivered them to firehouses and other sanctuaries. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said all students made it home safely by Wednesday.
But another hard freeze was predicted overnight.
On social media, parents and commuters scolded school and city officials, as well as Georgia's governor and Atlanta's mayor, for not shutting things down ahead of the storm.
"I want heads [to roll] tomorrow," one parent posted on the Facebook page of 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.
"Horrible horrible horrible horrible job," another parent wrote.
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 tweets sought to reassure angry residents that the city was working hard to plow roads and get everyone home: "We know you want to get home, and we are going to work all day until you can return safely."
The National Weather Service reported that 2.6 inches of snow fell at Atlanta's international airport — a ho-hum January day for the Northeast or Midwest, but a disaster in a region that is unaccustomed to snow. Like many Southern cities, Atlanta lacks the equipment, expertise and experience to quickly clear snow-clogged streets and highways.
Deal did not declare a state of emergency until Tuesday afternoon, when traffic snarls had already developed. Governors in North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama also declared states of emergency, though snowfalls were generally lower than predicted there and in many parts of the South.
In Georgia, Deal and Reed stood side by side Wednesday to take shared responsibility, but also to defend their response.
"We made a mistake by not staggering when people should leave," Reed said at a morning news conference.
"I'm willing to take whatever blame comes my way," agreed Deal, who is up for reelection this fall. "Obviously there were errors."
But the governor argued that if the state had advised businesses and government to shut down earlier — or not opened at all, as now seems prudent — critics would have complained if the storm had fallen short.
"We don't want to be accused of crying wolf," Deal said. "If we had been wrong, y'all would have all been in here saying, 'Well, you know how many millions of dollars you cost the economy and the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia by shutting down businesses?'"
Indeed, a few parents in central North Carolina complained after schools were closed all day Tuesday in anticipation of snow that was not predicted to fall until evening. Less than an inch fell in Durham. School officials said they had erred on the side of caution.
In Atlanta, there were tales of perseverance. Karen Lewis, 42, left her law offices in midtown Atlanta at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday to drive home to Roswell, about 20 miles north. Nearly 14 hours later, she arrived home — at 2 a.m.
Stuck in her car for hours, she passed time surfing Facebook, listening to President Obama's State of the Union address and listening to it again on replay. "I picked up some of the more subtle points," she joked.
She also had a terrible need to use the bathroom. "I held it for 13 hours," she said. Once she slowly started driving again, she was too afraid to stop to find a bathroom, so she held on until she finally got home.
"I would have had to cross over three lanes of ice, of traffic, of people driving 2-3 mph," she said. "So I held it."
Jeff Partee, a heating technician, was on a job north of Atlanta on Tuesday when snow began piling up. His work van made it only as far as a gas station off Interstate 285, where he spent the night. He had plenty of company — at least 100 stranded travelers.
The gas station mini-mart stayed open, so Partee ate a doughnut for dinner and a hot dog for breakfast. To stay warm, he cranked up the heater in his van.
"Ran that rascal all night long," he said.
It was a similar story in Birmingham, Ala. Nathan Marcus, 53, grew up there, left for school, then came back in 1984. He has seen big snowstorms hit the South before, like the 1993 storm that dumped 13 inches on Birmingham. But what he saw Tuesday shocked him.
"There's this one part of the highway, in a mile stretch, there had to be 500 cars abandoned," Marcus, an insurance agent, said Wednesday. "People ran out of gas. Tired of sitting for six hours, they slept in cars. I've never seen that. Not down here, at least."
Neither he, his wife nor his daughter got home Tuesday night. In fact, the only family member there was Lucas, the dog. "And we had to get a neighbor to spring him," Marcus said.
In Atlanta, there were tales of Southern hospitality and a bittersweet sense of shared misery.
A Facebook site, SnowedOutAtlanta, sprang 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, with updates on how much milk, bread and bottled water remained on store shelves. Others asked for places to stay.
Avers, the survivor of the 22-hour drive, was moved by strangers who helped her along the way.
Because she was still wearing her dress shoes from work, she paid a man to buy a can of gasoline for her. He returned with the gas — and $3 change.
"There were people — I've never seen this before — there were people in neighborhoods that were standing outside with water bottles, apples, food to give to people that were stuck; men that were out there, already home — or not home — guys that pulled over at the tops or bottoms of hills, pushing people out," Avers said.
"And that was really amazing."
Mascaro reported from Georgia, Zucchino from North Carolina and Pearce from Los Angeles.Copyright © 2015, CT Now