Published Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 | 8:33 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 | 4:13 p.m.
ATLANTA — Thousands of Atlanta schoolchildren stranded all night long in their classrooms were reunited with their parents Wednesday, while rescuers rushed to deliver blankets, food, gas and a ride home to countless shivering motorists stopped cold by a storm that paralyzed the South's flagship city with less than 3 inches of snow.
As National Guardsmen and state troopers fanned out, Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal found themselves on the defensive, acknowledging that the storm preparations and the response could have been better. But state officials also blamed forecasts that said conditions wouldn't be so bad.
The icy weather wreaked similar havoc across much of the South, closing schools and highways, grounding flights and contributing to at least a dozen deaths from traffic accidents and a mobile home fire.
Yet it was Atlanta, home to major corporations and the world's busiest airport, that was Exhibit A for how a Southern city could be sent reeling by winter weather that, in the North, might be no more than an inconvenience.
The mayor said the city could have directed schools, businesses and government offices to stagger their closings on Tuesday afternoon, as the storm began, rather than dismissing everyone at the same time.
The result was gridlock on freeways that are jammed even on normal days. Countless vehicles were stranded — and many of them abandoned. Officials said 239 children spent Tuesday night aboard school buses; more than 10,000 others stayed overnight in their schools.
One woman's 12-mile commute home took 16 hours. Another woman gave birth while stuck in traffic; police arrived just in time to help. Drivers who gave up trying to get home took shelter at fire stations, churches and grocery stores.
One traffic death was reported in Atlanta — that of a man killed in a crash.
"I'm not thinking about a grade right now," the mayor said when asked about the city's response. "I'm thinking about getting people out of their cars."
The governor said the National Guard was sending Humvees onto Atlanta's snarled freeways to move stranded school buses and deliver food and water. State troopers headed to schools where children were hunkered down, and transportation crews brought gas to motorists.
By Wednesday night, Deal said all Atlanta-area schoolchildren were back home with their parents.
Atlanta was crippled by an ice storm in 2011, and officials had vowed not to be caught unprepared again. But in this case, few closings or other measures were ordered ahead of time; officials said the forecasts indicated no more than a dusting of snow.
Deal, who is up for re-election in November, said the state may tighten requirements for truckers to use tire chains. Tractor-trailer wrecks were blamed for many highway bottlenecks. The governor also said warnings could have been posted along highways earlier and farther out Tuesday.
But he also fended off criticism about the government's response.
"I would have acted sooner, and I think we learn from that and then we will act sooner the next time," Deal told reporters.
"But we don't want to be accused of crying wolf. Because if we had been wrong, y'all would have all been in here saying, 'Do you know how many millions of dollars you cost the economies of the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia by shutting down businesses all over this city and this state?'"
Deal faulted government forecasters, saying they warned the storm would strike south of Atlanta.
However, the National Weather Service explicitly cautioned on Monday that snow-covered roads "will make travel difficult." And around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, the agency issued a winter storm warning for metro Atlanta and cautioned people not to travel except in an emergency.
Around the time the traffic jam started, Deal and Reed were at an award ceremony recognizing the mayor as the "2014 Georgian of the Year." Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor left before 1:30 p.m. and was in constant contact with emergency officials.
Among the commuters trapped in the gridlock was Jessica Troy, who described her commute home to the suburb of Smyrna as a slow-motion obstacle course on sheets of ice.
"We literally would go 5 feet and sit for two hours," Troy said after she and a co-worker who rode with her finally made it home about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. They spent more than 16 hours in the car, covering 12 miles.
The standstill gave Troy time to call her parents and send text messages to friends, letting them know she was OK. By 3 a.m. her car was stuck on a freeway entrance ramp. She put it in park, left the heat running and tried to get some sleep.
"I slept for an hour and it was not comfortable," Troy said. "Most people sat the entire night with no food, no water, no bathroom. We saw people who had children. It was a dire situation."
After daybreak, a few good Samaritans appeared, going car-to-car with bottles of water and cookies. Traffic started moving again about 8:30.
At Atlanta's Deerwood Elementary School, librarian Brian Ashley spent Tuesday night with a dozen of his colleagues and 35 children on cots in the gym.
The teachers and other staff members opened up the pantry in the cafeteria, making pizza and chicken nuggets with carrots and apples for dinner. Later, some police officers dropped off sandwiches, and parents living nearby brought food.
"The kids slept peacefully through the night," Ashley said. "They knew that there were people around them that cared about them."
However, Ashley said officials never should have allowed the schools to open Tuesday.
"They were forewarned about the weather, and they were ill-prepared," he said. "If schools were canceled yesterday, we would not have had the catastrophe we did last night and today."
About 1,000 arrivals and departures were canceled at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, including one that was supposed to carry the Detroit Pistons to an NBA game with the Atlanta Hawks. The game was postponed, as was Georgia's legislative session on Wednesday.
But even amid the chaos, Atlanta officials insisted that downtown was open for business — at least for a huge meat- and poultry-industry exposition at the Georgia World Congress Center. Roughly 27,000 people from more than 100 countries were expected to attend between Monday and Friday.
City officials arranged for prompt scraping and ice-melting operations on roads around the center.
"Atlanta has a lot at stake with the convention business," said Charles Olentine, the expo's general manager. "It is mandatory that visitors to Atlanta feel welcome and attended to."
Across Georgia, the state patrol reported more than 1,250 traffic accidents.
Temperatures in Atlanta were forecast to dip as low as 16 Wednesday night, then gradually rise to the mid-50s by Friday.
Elsewhere in the South:
— Alabama officials said rescuers and medics in helicopters were flying over hard-hit counties on search-and-rescue missions. State troopers said five people were killed in traffic accidents that may have been weather-related.
— Amid freezing temperatures in Mississippi, four people — including two small children — died in a mobile home fire blamed on a faulty space heater. The highway patrol said several abandoned vehicles on Interstate 59 near Hattiesburg were broken into.
— In South Carolina, the Highway Patrol responded to almost 820 collisions statewide between 4 p.m. Tuesday and 4 a.m. Wednesday.
— Schools across much of North Carolina were closed Wednesday, and some colleges canceled class, including North Carolina State University. The state highway patrol said the weather was a factor in traffic accidents that killed two people.
— The Virginia coast was blanketed in up to 10 inches of snow Wednesday morning. Tens of thousands of sailors were told to stay away from the region's Navy bases unless they were essential.
— Ice closed more 20 highways in Louisiana. Normally busy areas of New Orleans were quiet.
Associated Press writers Kate Brumback, Ray Henry, Phillip Lucas, Bill Cormier, Bill Barrow and Don Schanche in Atlanta; Mike Graczyk in Houston; Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C.; Kevin McGill and Stacey Plaisance in New Orleans; Jay Reeves in Montgomery, Ala.; Brock Vergakis in Norfolk, Va.; and Jan