Helicopters took to the skies Wednesday to search for stranded drivers while authorities on the ground worked to deliver food, water and gas — or a ride home — to people who were stuck on highways after a winter storm walloped the U.S. Deep South.

Students spent the night on buses or at schools, commuters abandoned their cars or slept in them and interstates turned into parking lots. The problems started when schools, businesses and government offices all let out at the same time. As people waited in gridlock, snow accumulated, the roads froze, cars ran out of gas and tractor-trailers jackknifed, blocking equipment that could have treated the roads. In the chaos, though, there were stories of rescues and kindness.

It wasn't clear exactly how many people were still stranded on the roads a day after the storm paralyzed the region. By Wednesday afternoon, traffic began moving around Atlanta, though it was still slow going in some areas. The timing of when things would clear and thaw was also uncertain because temperatures were not expected to be above freezing.

Tina Wells's car came to a halt along the I-75 at 6 p.m. on Tuesday and was stuck for about 20 hours.

Winter Weather Alabama

Traffic was at a standstill on Interstate 65 northbound as officials worked to clear abandoned vehicles Wednesday in Hoover, Ala. (Hal Yeager/Associated Press)

“It’s like a big sheet of ice everywhere. It’s craziness. People are abandoning their cars,” Wells told CBC Windsor’s Bob Steele, host of The Bridge, while she was still stuck. “I have all my stuff in my car. I’d hate to abandon it.”

Wells left Kingsville, southwest of Windsor, on Monday. She spent Monday night in Lexington, Ky., before heading to Stone Mountain, Ga.

The rare snowstorm deposited only several centimetres of snow in Georgia and Alabama, but there were more than 1,000 fender-benders. At least six people died in traffic accidents, including five in Alabama, and four people were killed early Tuesday in a Mississippi mobile home fire blamed on a faulty space heater.

Elsewhere in the South, Virginia's coast had up to 25 centimetres of snow, while South Carolina had about 10 centimetres. Highways were shut down in Louisiana.

Jackknifed 18-wheelers

In Atlanta and Birmingham, interstates were clogged by jackknifed 18-wheelers. Some commuters pleaded for help via cellphones while still holed up in their cars, while others trudged kilometres home, abandoning their vehicles outright.

Linda Moore spent 12 hours stuck in her car on Interstate 65 south of Birmingham before a firefighter used a ladder to help her cross the median wall and a shuttle bus took her to a hotel where about 20 other stranded motorists spent the night in a conference room.

"I boohooed a lot," she said. "It was traumatic. I'm just glad I didn't have to stay on that Interstate all night, but there are still people out there."

Winter Weather Georgia

Jesse Hatcher limps away from his crash after he says another motorist caused him to lose control of his car and spin out off Interstate 20 West near Conyers, Ga., on Tuesday. (Curtis Compton, Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Associated Press)

Some employers such as Blue Cross Blue Shield in Alabama had hundreds of people sleeping in offices overnight. Workers watched movies on their laptops, and office cafeterias gave away food.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley's office said rescuers and medics in helicopters were flying over Jefferson and Shelby counties conducting search and rescue missions.

Atlanta had expected light dusting

Atlanta, hub to major corporations and the world's busiest airport, once again found itself unprepared to deal with the chaos — despite assurances that city officials had learned their lessons from a 2011 ice storm that brought the city to its knees. Some residents were outraged that more precautions weren't taken this time around and schools and other facilities weren't closed ahead of time. But officials from schools and that state said weather forecasts indicated the area would not see more than a dusting of snow and that it didn't become clear until late Tuesday morning that those were wrong.

Still, Georgia leaders were aware of public angst and tried to mitigate it.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed took some of the blame for schools, businesses and government all letting out at the same time, and he said they should have staggered their closings.

"I'm not thinking about a grade right now," Reed said when asked about the city's response. "I'm thinking about getting people out of their cars."

With files from CBC News