U.S. Deep South hit by deep freeze, ice and snow

A winter storm struck the U.S. South today, causing wrecks and gridlocks, forcing the closure of schools and offices and leaving residents scrambling to stock up on fuel and groceries.

Storm causes hundreds of car crashes from Georgia to Texas

People work to clear stranded vehicles on a road in Wilsonville, Ala. A winter storm that would probably be no big deal in the northern U.S. all but paralyzed the Deep South on Tuesday, bringing snow, ice and teeth-chattering cold. (Hal Yeagar/Associated Press)

The mad rush began at the first sight of snow: Across the Atlanta area, schools let out early and commuters left for home after lunch, instantly creating gridlock so severe that security guards and doormen took to the streets to direct cars amid a cacophony of blaring horns.

Georgia State University student Alex Tracy looked on with amusement.

"My family is from up north and we're used to driving in the snow and stuff, and seeing everyone freak out, sliding and stuff, it's pretty funny," Tracy said.

Mary McEneaney was not as amused with her commute from a fundraising job at Georgia Tech in Midtown Atlanta to her home about eight kilometres away — normally a 20 to 40-minute drive, depending on traffic. On Tuesday, it took her 40 minutes to move just three blocks. She made it home three hours later.

"I had to stop and go to the bathroom at the hotel," she said. "At that rate I knew I wasn't going to make it until I got home."

Representatives from Houston County's law enforcement agencies, Red Cross, hospitals, and school system attend a National Weather Service briefing Tuesday in Warner Robins, Ga. (Woody Marshall/Macon Telegraph/Associated Press)

A winter storm that would probably be no big deal in the North all but paralyzed the Deep South on Tuesday, bringing snow, ice and teeth-chattering cold, with temperatures around –10C in some places.

Many folks across the region don't know how to drive in snow, and many cities don't have big fleets of salt trucks or snowplows, and it showed. Hundreds of wrecks happened from Georgia to Texas. Two people died in an accident in Alabama.

In Atlanta, the gridlock was so bad, a baby girl was delivered alongside Interstate 285, said Capt. Steve Rose, a spokesman for Sandy Springs police in suburban north Atlanta. He said an officer made it to the mother and her husband in time to help with the delivery and both parents and baby were fine.

What would have been a 45-minute commute on a typical day in Atlanta turned into a more-than-five-hour journey for Lisa Webster, who is five months pregnant and was travelling with her screaming 16-month-old son.

Webster spent about four hours crawling in her car along Interstate 75 northbound from Midtown Atlanta to Marietta — "I think we were going maybe two miles per hour," she said — before deciding at a local grocery store to walk. Hoofing it the remaining half-mile home turned out to be the highlight of her commute.

"We were out, we were stretching our legs we were moving faster than all of the stopped cars," she said. "I could see an end in sight."

Up to 50 million people affected

As many as 50 million people across the region could be affected by the time the snow stops on Wednesday. Up to 10 centimetres of snow fell in central Louisiana, and about 7.5 centimetres was forecast for parts of Georgia. Up to 25 centimetres was expected in the Greenville, N.C., area and along the state's Outer Banks.

On the Gulf Shores beaches in Alabama, icicles hung from palm trees. Hundreds of students in the northeastern part of the state faced spending the night in gyms or classrooms because the roads were too icy.

In Tennessee's Sevier County, some buses turned around as road conditions worsened and brought the children back to school. For children whose parents were unable to pick them up, the district was using four-wheel-drive vehicles from various agencies to get the students home, said Sevier County Assistant Superintendent Debra Cline. All the affected children had made it home by Tuesday afternoon, according to news media reports.

In Knox County, several buses had trouble, sliding off roads, and one collided with a car. Dispatchers said no one was hurt.

Bundled-up commuters exit a Metra commuter train at Chicago's Union Station Monday morning. (Rich Hein/Sun-Times/Associated Press)

The governors of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi declared states of emergency. Four people were killed in a Mississippi mobile home fire blamed on a space heater.

New Orleans' merry Bourbon Street in the French Quarter was oddly quiet as brass bands and other street performers stayed indoors.

Lee and Virginia Holt of Wayne, Pa., walked into Cafe du Monde — a New Orleans landmark known for its beignets and cafe au lait — after finding the National World War II Museum closed because of the weather.

No equipment or experience

"We understand they don't have the equipment to prepare the roads," she said. Her husband added: "Nor the experience."

Snow covered Atlanta's statues of civil rights heroes, and snowplows that rarely leave the garage rolled out onto the city's streets. They didn't seem to do much good; for commuters unaccustomed to driving on snow-slicked roads, driving was nearly impossible.

Galapagos tortoises at the zoo in Austin, Texas, stay warm under a heater inside the tortoise barn on Monday. Zookeepers are using hay, blankets, tarps and heaters to protect their animals from the next cold snap. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/Associated Press)

In Atlanta, cars were packed bumper-to-bumper, green lights came and went — and traffic didn't move an inch, McEneaney said. She decided to take side streets and, when necessary, shifted into lower gear because of the slippery conditions.

"As long as you went slowly, the roads were OK," she said.

Georgia State Patrol spokesman Gordy Wright said troopers responded to more than 500 crashes throughout the state. Wright said 65 injuries were reported, but no fatalities.

Atlanta police spokesman John Chafee said officers had responded to more than 285 crashes since 1:30 p.m. local time, when snow began coating the city.

Many Southerners also lack the winter tools that northerners take for granted — such as snow shovels. At a hardware store in the Georgia town of Cumming, shovels were in short supply, but manager Tom Maron said feed scoops — often used in barns — could be substituted.

Nationwide, more than 3,200 airline flights were cancelled.