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Georgia, Alabama clear vehicle-littered roads as deep freeze settles in

By Chelsea J. Carter and Dana Ford, CNN
January 30, 2014 -- Updated 0705 GMT (1505 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: People who left cars on Atlanta interstates are being told to go to staging areas Thursday
  • NEW: Fuel and the capability to jump dead batteries will be made available, officials say
  • About 200 children remain trapped at schools in Alabama, the governor says
  • At least 10 people have been killed in weather-related incidents across the Southeast

Atlanta (CNN) -- Empty streets, shuttered storefronts and abandoned vehicles littering the side of the road.

That was the scene across much of metropolitan Atlanta on Wednesday as people hunkered down to wait out the aftermath of a snow and ice storm that brought the nation's ninth-largest metropolitan area to a screeching halt.

A day after up to 3 inches of snow in parts of Georgia caused horrific gridlock on ice-covered streets -- particularly in metropolitan Atlanta where thousands were trapped on the roads overnight -- several major thoroughfares remained a mess due to lingering accidents and other problems.

In neighboring Alabama, there was a similar scene playing out.

A car lies half submerged in the Cahaba River in Mountain Brook, Alabama, on Thursday, January 30. The driver was able to escape before the car slid into the river during a snow storm on Tuesday and was not injured. A wave of arctic air that started over the Midwest and Plains spread to the Southeast, bringing snow, freezing ice and sleet to a region that doesn't deal with such weather very often. A car lies half submerged in the Cahaba River in Mountain Brook, Alabama, on Thursday, January 30. The driver was able to escape before the car slid into the river during a snow storm on Tuesday and was not injured. A wave of arctic air that started over the Midwest and Plains spread to the Southeast, bringing snow, freezing ice and sleet to a region that doesn't deal with such weather very often.
Freezing temperatures sweep U.S.
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Photos: Freezing temperatures sweep U.S. Photos: Freezing temperatures sweep U.S.
Anchor voices Atlanta's frustration
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Southeast storm 'once in a generation'

"There are still four or five areas on our interstates that are still treacherous. The traffic is still proceeding very slowly, but we are making progress," Gov. Robert Bentley said.

"We still have a number of students around the state that could potentially have to remain in school tonight, but they will be taken care of. They will be protected. They will be fed. They will stay warm."

And as bad as things remained in parts of Georgia and Alabama early Wednesday evening, state officials feared it would only get worse as the night wore on and the temperatures dropped.

They pleaded for people to stay at home. Many of the roads were littered with abandoned vehicles and remained impassible. Many of those were in the metro Atlanta area.

"We're working on clearing the abandoned vehicles. We're just pushing them to the shoulders," said Karlene Barron of the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Motorists who left their vehicles on interstates are being told to go at 10 a.m. ET Thursday to one of two staging areas, depending on where they abandoned their car or truck, according to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

"There will be fuel available for vehicles that ran out of gas as well as the capability to jump off a dead battery," the agency said in a written statement. State police will have a database to help motorists locate their vehicle, if it was towed to an impound lot, and will provide transportation to the lot, the statement said.

Meanwhile, the interstates and ramps were being "re-treated," she said, as forecasters predicted a deep freeze overnight that will likely freeze any moisture on the roadways.

"For interstates, 100% have been cleared," Barron said. "But we haven't gotten to all the state routes, but we've pretty much touched all of the interstates. It's a very good percentage cleared."

In Georgia, the governor and the mayor acknowledged they could have planned better for the storm.

And this time, they really mean it, they said, referring to their handling of a storm three years ago.

"I'm willing to take whatever blame comes my way and, if I'm responsible for it, I will accept that," Gov. Nathan Deal told reporters.

"We all have some lessons we need to learn here from this," he said. "And I think we all will."

Thousands of schoolchildren who had been trapped on buses and in Atlanta-area schools overnight were reunited by early Wednesday evening with their families, Deal said, adding that state troopers, police or members of the National Guard escorted many of the buses.

"Last night, we had at least 95 immobile buses. We had cleared them all by this morning, and that was a big task," he said. "Our next task was getting students home from school, and now we have achieved that."

In Alabama, the weather forced more than 5,000 students to spend Tuesday night in school buildings.

Some teachers who stayed in their classrooms overnight to care for stranded students were facing a possible redux Wednesday night, according to Bentley, who said in a post on Twitter that roughly 200 schoolchildren remain stranded.

Blame game?

Earlier in the day, Deal said the need to release students, government workers and private employees in stages, instead of all at once, was a chief lesson. He blamed the mass exodus Tuesday for the gridlock that paralyzed the Atlanta metro area and left some motorists stranded for more than 12 hours.

Asked who was at fault for the gridlock, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told CNN, "I think rather than play the blame game, we have shared responsibility. But, I want to state clearly, I don't have jurisdiction to clear interstate highways in the city of Atlanta. I'm responsible for the streets that are in the city of Atlanta. And, as of today -- one day into a severe weather event -- we got our streets cleaned. We kept our hospitals open. We kept our people safe, and the city of Atlanta is running again."

Earlier, Reed acknowledged that "we made a mistake by not staggering when people should leave, so I will take responsibility for that -- in lessons learned," he said.

"If we had to do it again, we would have said, 'Schools, you go first, private sector, you go second, and government goes last.' And so I think that would have helped."

But he said the timing of the closures was not his call. In the case of when students were sent home, it was up to the Atlanta Public Schools, and the responsibility for clearing the freeways belongs to the state, he said.

Reed said the city responded better than it did after a 2011 ice storm, which stopped the metro area dead in its tracks for four days.

The city now has 30 spreaders, 40 snowplows and 70,000 tons of sand and gravel versus just four pieces of equipment three years ago, he said.

In 2011, "nothing was done because no one had any equipment," he said.

But Tuesday's gridlock made it impossible for workers to use the equipment on many of the roads, according to Deal. "I don't know the best way to solve that," he said.

He also pointed to the complicating role played by big rigs, which he blamed for "a major portion" of the congestion as a result of jackknifing.

Deal said he based the decisions he made on the best evidence then available to him. "If we closed the city of Atlanta and our interstate system based on maybes, then we would not be a very productive government or a city," he said. "We can't do it based on the maybes."

He added, "I think we have done a reasonable job. Could we have prevented it? That's the question ... I don't think anybody can say."

Asked whether he wanted to apologize to his constituents, Deal said, "I apologize to them for the fact that they are in the situation that has occurred. If it was based on my decisions, yes, I apologize for that. Will we try to make better decisions based on the knowledge we gain from this? Yes, we will. But we can never promise because it would be an unrealistic promise, that we will always be correct when it comes to deciding what Mother Nature is going to do. Because she has a mind of her own."

What to do when stuck in a snowbound car

Good Samaritans

Travis Zeh texted his wife around 12:45 p.m. Tuesday from Alpharetta, Georgia, telling her he was on his way to their home in Atlanta.

A day later, he made it -- after more than 25 hours.

As much as his experience, fruitlessly looking for a gas station and hotel room before finding a place to crash with friends, was unnerving and exhausting, Zeh described it as uplifting.

He has Jenny Busing and her husband Ryan to thank largely for that. After taking Zeh in, Jenny had them head out on roads around metro Atlanta's northern perimeter and I-285 off-ramps to hand out food, water and much needed energy.

That's how what was supposed to be one-hour sojourn turned into a nearly five-hour, adrenaline-fueled, overnight adventure. Led by Jenny, Zeh said they checked in on crawling motorists and, in one case, a bus with about a dozen young students to give them what they could -- even going to a gas station to restock on supplies.

"It was one of those things where you see the good in people," Zeh recalled. "We were offered money and we said keep it, use it for gas or just pay it forward."

But Zeh's experience was a mere inconvenience compared with the situation of a woman in labor in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs.

Traffic jams blocked her way to the hospital and kept paramedics from reaching her, so -- with the aid of her husband and a police officer -- she delivered her daughter Tuesday evening.

"It was just really all a blur. My husband was driving on the side and everyone is beeping at us because they are all in gridlock," Amy Anderson told CNN's Piers Morgan on Wednesday evening.

"We came to a stop that we couldn't get through at all. That's when I told him, 'We are going to have this baby in the car.'"

Anderson said the family, which includes two other daughters, are doing well.

"When we gave her the name Grace, it just fully explained the whole situation: just by the grace of God that we all came out healthy...."

Deaths and injuries

For some, the storm had tragic results. Authorities blamed it for 10 deaths across the Southeast.

In Alabama, five people died, and 23 people were injured, the state Emergency Management Agency said Wednesday.

The governor deployed 350 National Guard troops to help motorists.

In Georgia, two storm-related deaths were confirmed. A 60-year-old woman died Tuesday afternoon in Senoia when her van drove into a ditch and overturned, the Georgia State Patrol said.

And a 17-year-old boy was killed in Henry County when his pickup struck a tree Tuesday evening, police said.

The Georgia State Patrol said it had tallied 1,254 accidents and 130 injuries.

In Mississippi, the state Emergency Management Agency reported one death in a storm-related traffic accident in Smith County.

In North Carolina, two people died in accidents, the state Department of Public Safety reported.

North Carolina state patrol officers responded to more than 3,000 service calls, including 600 on Wednesday morning, from motorists who had crashed their vehicles or abandoned them a day earlier, the public safety department said.

Still, as many accidents as there were, transportation department spokesman Steve Abbott conceded it could have been worse.

"We didn't get as much ice as we had expected," he said.

How snow is messing with your air travel

CNN's Phil Gast, Tom Watkins, Carma Hassan, Joseph Netto, Catherine E. Shoichet, Steve Almasy, Greg Botelho, Kevin Conlon, Chad Myers, Dave Alsup and Jareen Imam contributed to this report.

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