Washington: A rare ice storm turned Atlanta into a slippery mess on Wednesday, stranding thousands for hours on blocked roadways and raising questions about how city leaders prepared for and handled the cold snap that slammed the US South.
The storm, which has killed at least seven people, on Tuesday swept over a region of about 60 million largely unaccustomed to ice and snow - stretching from Texas through Georgia and into the Carolinas - and showed no sign of abating on Thursday.
"Forecast: 100 percent chance of frustration," read an entry on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Twitter feed.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed came under fire for his response to a storm that trapped hundreds of children in schools overnight, some without provisions, and created traffic jams that stretched for miles on roads coated with barely two inches of snow.
He said schools, businesses and government offices were partly to blame for sending people home just as the storm was rolling in.
"During the day, we have a million to 1.2 million people in this city and all those people were out in very bad weather. It hampered our ability to get our equipment on the ground and to prepare our roads for that," Reed told a news conference.
"The error - and we have shared responsibility for the error - the error was letting everybody out at once, which caused traffic jams," he said.
The city`s highways became parking lots and thousands of motorists, still stuck 24 hours after the storm hit, were seeking help and food. Workers who couldn`t get home were trying to find makeshift accommodations in stores and offices.
About 800 traffic accidents were reported in the city, but there were no serious injuries, he said. At least five deaths in Alabama and two in Georgia were blamed on the weather.
Airlines scrubbed thousands of flights at airports from Houston to Atlanta, with some 500 cancelled early Wednesday at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world`s busiest.
For southern Louisiana, the ice and cold were the worst the region has seen in a decade. According to the Southeast Regional Climate Center, the annual snowfall average for Atlanta is about 2.1 inches.
`None of us were prepared`
"We are all in this together and we will get through it together," read a statement from police in Anniston, Alabama. "What was to be a simple dusting (of snow) has turned into something more. None of us were prepared."
Forecasters predicted little relief, with temperatures unlikely to rise much above freezing long enough to thaw ice-covered roads and bridges, before dipping below freezing again across the Southeast early on Thursday.
Precipitation was expected to ease later in the morning, and the wintry mix of snow, sleet and ice had moved farther up the East Coast on Wednesday from Georgia through Maryland, where motorists were warned to stay off the roads, and some schools were being closed.
A Facebook page called "Stranded Motorists Help Jan 28, 2014" which has more than 10,000 members, already had amassed entries from stranded motorists and volunteers trying to help them after the day-long gridlock in the Atlanta metro area.
Echo Garrett of Atlanta said a good friend of hers remained marooned on I-285 on Wednesday.
"She`s almost out of cell phone battery, no water, no food. No rescue vehicles," Garrett said in a message to a news agency.
Atlanta school officials said on CNN that forecasts "drastically changed" after students had already been instructed to come to class.
In Birmingham, Alabama, authorities said a lack of warning about the treacherous roads led to thousands being stuck on roads, in shelters and in schools, with snow clearing vehicles having been initially directed south of the city, where the icy conditions were expected to hit.
"We proceeded to have school and have people go to their jobs," Mayor William Bell said. "When it came, it was too late."
The roads and Interstates there had begun to clear later Wednesday morning in Birmingham, with no injuries reported and no additional stranded motorists, police said.
Sections of major roadways remained closed in Louisiana near New Orleans, including the 24-mile Causeway Bridge spanning Lake Pontchartrain.
As the ice was being cleared in Louisiana on Wednesday, some airlines resumed limited service after nearly 24 hours of cancellations at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
Authorities in Atlanta rescued about 50 school children, whose buses were stranded overnight on an ice-slicked road, district officials said. Hundreds of other students remained sheltered in schools and other locations.
"We`re feeding them; we`re watching movies, eating pizza," Principal Matt Rogers of E. Rivers Elementary said of the 95 students staying there. "It`s like a sleepover."
In Birmingham, about 800 students remained in their schools, safe and fed, early on Wednesday, Bell said.
"We realise that is not good enough for parents who want to hold their children in their arms," Bell said. "We are doing all we can to reunite children with their parents."