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Atlanta snow surprises schools, snarls traffic and strands motorists

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On Jan. 28, families in metro Atlanta went about their normal business, despite a threat of light snow. Kids made their way to the bus stops and working parents commuted to work. However, around 1 p.m., Atlanta went into overdrive when the snow, which came in much earlier than expected, surprised all of Atlanta and showed no signs of slowing down. Surprised school administrators suddenly decided to send students home early, causing parents to scurry and leave work early. With a population of more than four million, Atlanta experienced an unprecedented traffic gridlock and an historic nightmare that will be talked about for years to come.

As posted by “People” magazine on Tuesday, Winter Storm Leon “brought Hotlanta to a standstill.” When businesses closed early, motorists experienced an almost unbelievable traffic snarl and standstill that gridlocked the entire city in less than two hours. At one point on Tuesday, a Google map of traffic out of Atlanta showed heavy delays on every single highway.

Working parents, anxious to get home, went nowhere fast. Commutes that normally took 30 minutes, interminably stretched into hours. School buses were also delayed, meaning students that were released around 1 p.m. weren’t loaded onto buses until 4, 5 or even 6:00. They were the lucky ones. Many students were forced to spend the night in their schools when their parents were unable to navigate impassable roads (due to heavy congestion and ice). Several stranded buses, loaded with students, were also unable to arrive at their destinations. The students were finally extricated by emergency workers and taken home or to shelters.

The “Atlanta Journal-Constitution” interviewed many people affected by the traffic breakdown in Atlanta on Tuesday. “People are stalling, no one has gas, trucks are jack-knifed,” Alicia Jones said tearfully, after spending seven hours in her car. Kyle Gibson added, after an agonizing eight-hour commute, “At one point, 285 was like a bumper pool table with abandoned cars and stuck 18-wheelers stopping up the highway."

Jan. 28 will go down in history as one of the worst traffic days ever in Atlanta. Worried families anxiously waited by the phone for word from members who were at a total standstill on Atlanta’s many highways. After 4-10 hours of agonizing travel time, many motorists finally cried “uncle” and left their vehicles in favor of walking home. One Atlanta dad did just that, and plodded seven miles home on foot, only to come across a coyote during his final shortcut. A Johns Creek dad sat in traffic for five hours (a trip that usually takes 30 minutes), made it to a hotel (only to discover that it was completely sold out), drove for two more hours, and finally left his vehicle at a fast food restaurant two miles away. He walked the final two miles and arrived home around 9 p.m.

As of 11 p.m., thousands are still stranded on icy roads in Atlanta. Rescue vehicles and road crews are unable to help because of the traffic gridlock. In fact, utility trucks couldn’t get to one of the new “sand barns” to load up on their mixture of sand and ice-dissolving solvents. So many motorists are stuck on impassible roads that a Facebook page was set up to connect stranded drivers with kindhearted people willing to offer rides and shelter to strangers.

All schools in and around metro Atlanta are closed on Wednesday, Jan. 29. Frustrated parents are happy about this, but many are wondering why students had to go to school at all today. “They dropped the ball,” one parent said on-air on WSB-TV on Tuesday night. In fact, Channel 2 went so far to state that the gridlock was a result of schools closing early with very little notice to parents. The roads in the ATL simply couldn’t handle the onslaught of traffic all at one time.

After “Snowpocalypse 2011" closed schools for an entire week and brought Atlanta to its knees for an extended period of time, the city purchased additional snow plows and developed an extensive plan to ensure the situation never repeated itself.

Well, it did. Thousands of motorists are still stranded and students are sheltering in their schools for the night. Is anyone to blame? Should school systems have made the decision to close on Monday? Is the city of Atlanta a major player in the blame game? How could this happen again to such a large metropolitan city?

The weather prediction on Tuesday was for a slight dusting of snow in Atlanta. However, the meteorology gods converged and decided to play an evil trick on the Southern city that has far too few snow plows, inexperienced winter drivers, and an already stressed out interstate system. It was the perfect storm and a recipe for disaster.

At 11 p.m., Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed held a joint press conference and accepted responsibility for Atlanta’s unusually dangerous day. They assured the city that local police departments, emergency services and volunteers are hard at work to rescue stranded motorists and get the city up and running as soon as possible. Roads to hospitals are being plowed and salted. State troopers are being sent to schools that are housing overnight students. Resources are being utilized to rectify an unexpected situation that seems to repeat itself.

Atlanta is a city that may get knocked down, but quickly regains its footing. Residents are opening their homes to stranded strangers. Businesses are staying open all night to shelter commuters that can’t get home. Selfless teachers are sleeping in schools to make sure scared students are comfortable and safe. There are many, many unsung heroes that will make all the difference.

Until roads are finally cleared and families are reunited, it's not time to point a finger. It’s a time to join hands and get through this latest crisis together. It’s the southern way.

To see how unexpected snow on Jan. 28 affected traffic in Atlanta, be sure to check out the above video from Fox 5.

To receive future articles by Jackie Kass, click on SUBSCRIBE. Do you have a story idea? I'd love to hear from you! E-mail your ideas to me at jackiekass@bellsouth.net.

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