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CNN NEWSROOM

Snow and Ice Paralyzes South

Aired January 29, 2014 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Roads for a second day. Hundreds of motorists are waking up in their cars. Still stranded on icy roads and highways crippled by paralyzing snow. And when I say snow, paralyzing snow, I mean two inches. In the city of Atlanta alone, nearly 1,000 car accidents were reported. Some drivers abandoned their cars on the side of the road and are trying to walk home.

A pregnant woman stuck in traffic was forced to give birth in her car. And perhaps even most astonishing, local politicians are shaking off the blame, saying, hey, we can't control the weather.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice-over): Thousands of drivers stranded on gridlocked highways paralyzing the metro area. Children stuck on their school buses well past midnight.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was so much scared. I was like, if I don't get home to my parents, I'm like, I'm going to freak out.

COSTELLO: Other students unable to make it home at all. Waking up in their classrooms this morning after slick road conditions forced some schools to cancel bus service.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One of the children had a cell phone so they kept calling me and saying we stopped again. We slipped again. We're hitting trees. We just ran a red light.

COSTELLO: With more than 900 accidents reported and over 100 injuries, some desperate commuters decided to abandon their cars and seek shelter. Others, some who reports spending over 10 hours on the road, turned to social media for help.

"Nine months' pregnant. Haven't eaten since 10:00 a.m. yesterday. My car is out of gas and I'm starting to get cold, dehydrated and hungry. Please help."

Anxious residents seek help for their loved ones.

"I have a friend whose truck has been hit by six cars. She has two kids in the car and trying get two more at daycare. 911 is busy. Any suggestions?"

The city in a state of emergency, leaving many asking, why wasn't the city more prepared?

Facing mounting criticism Governor Nathan Deal blamed a faulty weather forecast in a presser late last night.

GOV. NATHAN DEAL (R), GEORGIA: I wish it was something that we could wave a magic wand, but that's not possible. We have to deal with reality. And I think all of these folks that are here are doing their very best.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: Of course, the meteorologists here at CNN beg to differ. They say their forecasts were right on target. We'll get to that in a minute. But I want to head out to the Atlanta airport right now.

Victor Blackwell is there.

At last check, hundreds of flights have been canceled for the day -- Victor.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, I'm just a few miles away from the airport here in College Park. And yes, hundreds of flights canceled today. That's on top of nearly 1,000 flights yesterday. And when we talk about 1,000, we know more than 1,000 students in and around Atlanta, here in Atlanta public schools and the counties surrounding Atlanta are waking up this morning at school. But the nightmare for them continues.

Schools in this area were dismissed and the classes were suspended at about 1:30 here in Atlanta and in other districts, but the students were not able to leave because of a shelter in place order. Some of the schools had difficulty feeding the students. We saw a tweet from Atlanta school officials at 11:45 last night that they were trying to get food to students at some schools.

And the students who were at the schools were the lucky ones. Because there were students as late as 5:00, 6:00 a.m. this morning who are stuck on school buses in the traffic on these icy roads. We know that Fulton County schools had about 90 students stuck on four buses. Ambulances had to rush to them. Pack them in those ambulances, drive them to a Kroger.

And then -- many of the students are still waiting there this morning for their parents to pick them up. They were able to just go to the shelves and pick whatever food and drink they wanted. But this started for them at this time yesterday when they walked into school.

The mayor of Atlanta is scheduled to hold a news conference this morning to answer some of the difficult questions about what the city prepared and if they took it seriously. And if those two things -- those two answers are yes, then how could all of this had happened here happened here. He has acknowledged, though, that one of the mistakes was releasing all of the government workers.

Companies sending their workers home and putting those school buses on the roads all at the same time. But clearly, more questions to be answered this morning by the mayor.

COSTELLO: Oh, lots and lots of questions. We're going to have the mayor -- the mayor of the city of Atlanta on in just about 10 minutes. So I'm sure everyone will be looking forward to that.

On the phone with me right now is my colleague Kyra Phillips. She endured a nightmare trying to get home last night.

Kyra, it's just -- it's just unconscionable what happened in Atlanta.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR (via phone): You know, here's how I'm looking at it. You know, I've lived and worked in Green Bay, Wisconsin, right? We made it to work. We functioned in feet of snow. And as you mentioned there was only a little bit of snow here. Here's the problem, people that are in Atlanta are not equipped for weather like this.

We don't have the trucks. We don't have deicers. We don't have the salt. We don't have the right personnel. We don't have the leaders that understand what it takes to deal with weather like this.

And that's why, Carol, our city was paralyzed. I left work in the afternoon. It took me eight hours to get as far as I did. I finally had to ditch the car and walk home. But you know what, my situation, I could go into detail about how frustrating it was. It was nothing compared to what I witnessed on that eight-mile walk home.

I saw kids on school buses. I saw kids stuck at school. I saw people stranded on the street corners crying, not knowing what to do. Their cars were out of gas. Their phones weren't charged up. They weren't dressed properly. There were little kids in diapers where moms didn't have enough food to give them. They were going crazy in the car.

I mean, it was seriously, completely shut down. I mean, I've never seen anything like this. And we've been here, what, Carol, 15 years, and we've had bad weather. I've not ever witnessed the city shut down like this.

COSTELLO: I experienced back-to-back blizzards in Baltimore a few years ago, and people were able to move around after that happened. You're right. It's just -- it's unimaginable what happened here.

I want to get back to what happened to you, though. You ditched your car, like a lot of people did, because they had to. A lot of people ran out of gas. That was a big problem because if you ran out of gas, help can't get to you because the streets are clogged. Right?

PHILLIPS: Right.

COSTELLO: So you're on the side of the road, and what do you do, you get out of your car and you start walking? I know that didn't exactly happen to you but you decided to get out of your car and walk for eight miles.

You've been to Baghdad. You're one tough woman. But I understand it affected you emotionally, too?

PHILLIPS: Well, you know, because I kept thinking about my twins. I mean, I -- you know, my husband travels with work. And I was on my own, and all I could think about were my kids. And what am I going to do. And thank God I had neighbors I could call that could help. But that's what was driving me, like no matter how cold I was going to get, no matter where my car was, no matter what, I was going to get home at some point to make sure my family was OK.

If I didn't have kids, Carol, I probably would have knocked on someone's door and asked if I could hang out there. I mean, so (INAUDIBLE) strangers, all my entire walk, people were -- had signs up on their doors, saying, we're friendly, come in. We have hot coffee. You can stay here.

I saw so many neighbors taking people in, complete strangers. And I guess my biggest fear is I hope that we are not reporting on stories where people took advantage of people. And that there were issues of crime, et cetera. I hope that the desperation was so bad that that didn't happen. And that everybody had good intentions and just helped those that needed help.

COSTELLO: I think the latter is probably right because I've heard so many stories of Good Samaritans.

Going back to the kids when they decided to close the schools in Atlanta. Some of those school systems decide they couldn't run the buses because it was too dangerous out on the roadways, which meant parents had to somehow get to the school to pick their children up. That created a huge traffic jam because the schools closed, the businesses closed and the government offices closed all at the same time.

So everybody -- and people could not get to their children, Kyra, for hours and hours. Some of those kids ended up staying overnight in school. Other kids simply had nowhere to go and they were taken in by total strangers. It was really frightening for some parents.

PHILLIPS: And as a parent, can you imagine? And -- I mean -- you know, I'm always against giving kids cell phones, but I think this is one situation where I saw friends and neighbors going, thank God I gave my kid a phone, and they were able to tell me where they were and what happened.

Just in my eight-mile walk, three school buses, one spinning out, cars that bumped into each other on North Side which is a main road. I saw two other buses just right in the middle of the street, couldn't move. They were going the wrong way. They had cones up around the bus. Another bus I came across, the driver and the kids were still on that bus.

I would probably say a total of four was I able to witness they were either stranded, had kids or were blocking roadways. And you know, and that is where the leaders of this city are going to have to be held accountable. We knew that that weather was coming. We all knew that, right? Yes, we expected it later, so we thought we could push it. But schools should never have been open.

And the workers that are out here to protect us on the roads, et cetera, should never have been sent home. They really should have had a different plan. And living, like you said in Baltimore, and Green Bay, and other parts of the country, you know, you can prepare for things like this. We had warnings. And there are going to be leaders that are going to have to be held accountable. They made big mistakes -- Carol.

COSTELLO: And funny you should say that because coming up in just a couple of minutes we're going to have Atlanta's mayor, Kasim Reed, and I'll hold his feet to the fire. What exactly happened because the city of Atlanta is absolutely paralyzed.

Should that really happen to any large metropolitan city? God knows what could have happened. We had over 1,000 traffic accidents here. Over 100 injuries. One person died.

I'll pose all of those questions in your mind to Mayor Kasim Reed when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSTELLO: Some in the city of Atlanta still experiencing a traffic nightmare. The traffic is still backed up on a major artery here. That would be I-75. Because of all the accident, people have been stuck in traffic maybe since last night. One of the people stuck in traffic right now is Mayor Kasim Reed, the Atlanta mayor, but he assures us he will be in shortly and here to answer all of our questions.

The Georgia Department of Transportation issuing a strong warning to all of Atlanta -- for people to stay off the roads.

Nick Valencia is covering that part of the story.

Good morning, Nick.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Carol, how are you?

COSTELLO: Good. So what are they telling people? And have you asked -- I know I asked a few tough questions of them this morning, but what are they saying?

VALENCIA: Well, I'll tell you, in the handful of weather assignments that I've had over the course of last couple of months, really all throughout the United States, this is the worst I've seen it.

I was caught up in it myself at about 1:00 p.m. yesterday when this all started. I don't think anyone could have planned or prepared for businesses to close down. Let everyone out on the road. The mayor is listening to an interview that he had on the local radio station yesterday, he said about a million people were out on the roads all at once. And that caused just nightmare situations for so many people.

I was going six miles and it took me about four hours. Some of our colleagues were hearing stories --

COSTELLO: Well, let me -- let me interrupt you for just a second because we're showing a live picture of what it looks like right now. And people will immediately understand what you're saying about being stuck in traffic. So carry on.

VALENCIA: Yes. These cars are stranded out there. Some of them, I'm sure, Carol, are abandoned. I drove in work earlier this morning and in my drive I saw a handful of abandoned cars just had their hazard lights on. People just really got sick and tired of waiting in their cars and they decided to leave.

Everybody here -- I don't know if you guys understand at home, everybody here in Atlanta has been affected by it. Everyone seemingly has a story about the disaster that they went through. The nightmare situation they went through, We heard a story about a woman giving birth in her car. People having to spend the night at CDS. Children spending the night at school. About 150 people at one elementary school being kept overnight there.

People just couldn't get back home to their families. They couldn't drive on these roads. And, you know, when you mention this to our -- you know, our cousins to the northeast or, you know, people that are really used to or accustomed to dealing with really severe weather, this is almost laughable that a couple of inches of snow could have caused an entire city to shut down like this but again, the lack of preparation and coordination, I'd say, caused a big problem here, when everybody just was on that roadway. Trying to get home. And it was really just more like a race against the clock -- Carol.

COSTELLO: I just want to ask you a question, because I didn't see a single snowplow for -- yesterday or last night. And it took me a good four, five hours to get home. And I live two miles away, mind you. I didn't see -- did you? Did you see any snowplows or salt trucks?

VALENCIA: No, I didn't either. And this is a question that we probably have to ask the mayor. He said yesterday there were at least 40 snowplows out there on the road. I didn't see any of them at all. And I drove, you know, many miles in this city not only this morning but yesterday. Spoke to a lot of people that were stranded as well on those interstates. Like the interstate you're looking at right now, Interstate 75. One of our main interstates that goes through the city. Just a complete disaster to try to drive through.

My girlfriend's brother got caught in traffic. Twelve hours he was stuck. Two of them just in a parking deck trying to get out, Carol. So you can imagine, you know, the situation of his -- you know, temper that his going through. And trying to, you know, keep calm in a situation like that. I think everybody had, really, you know, their patience tested yesterday.

COSTELLO: All right. Nick Valencia, you stand by. Thanks so much.

VALENCIA: You bet. I want to head to the Weather Center, Indra Petersons, because it's very, very cold here now, Indra, as it is for most of the country. Take a look at these live pictures. You see that roadway there. It still looks slightly snow-covered. No surprise to me.

Actually that's ice now because, Indra, as you well know, when you're expecting to get very cold and for roads to turn icy, you should pre- treat the roadways. I did not notice much of that in the city of Atlanta yesterday.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: You know, this is one of the big things we keep talking about, it's weather education. It's understanding what to do when a storm's rolling in. And unfortunately, yesterday what I'm seeing and what I'm hearing, as soon as the storm hit, everyone flooded the doorways. Right? It's almost like everyone in that auditorium running to the door.

Everyone got in their cars, got on the roads at the exact same time. What do we have on the roads? We have snow on the roads. You have vehicles out there on those snowy roads. It's heating up those roads and now it's turned to water, right? The temperature keeps dropping through the overnight hours. What is that water? It is now ice.

This wasn't this horrific event. Take a look, Atlanta, only saw about over two inches of snow. They knew it was coming. We all knew it was coming, several days in advance. The one thing that was out there was a little bit of a question of how much ice and how much snow. You can actually see on the map when you look at the radar loop here. Closer to the gulf, it's warmer. That's where you get the water.

Then you get icing as that cold air makes its wind. First you get some icing and then you transition over to snow. So yes, some forecasts have a different amounts of ice or snow, either way, what time they brought in the ice and the snow, we knew the storm was coming and you were going to have this exact problem. Why? Of course we knew, that same big bull's eye of high pressure that's been here for the last several days. Bringing all that cold air.

Those freezing temperatures we've been talking about in the upper Midwest and the northeast. That cold air we knew was going towards the Gulf. It was going to go all the way down to the south. Interact with that moisture on the Gulf. The threat was coming through. This was not a surprise. It was all about the planning. The schools were not closed. Unfortunately, when the snow started to come, once again, everyone headed outdoors and they were stuck in the middle of the storm.

Storm, yes, still going to be producing several more inches of snow into the mid-Atlantic today. But the biggest thing I want to point out is exactly what you were talking about, Carol, the temperatures. They are still cold out there today. But in some places we're going to see that snow melt. Many places it already has. But remember, as you go through this evening hours again, overnight tonight any water that's on those highways that is going to refreeze. So forget the fact that nothing's falling out of the skies. That is not the problem at this point.

The problem is, everything that's already on those roadways. The fact that people may try and get on those highways again when they think conditions are going to be improving. And you could still have a round two with more black ice in the highways in an area where you guys just aren't used to this kind of weather.

COSTELLO: No, we're not. You know, another problem, a lot of people ran out of gas. And I don't know if this is true of all gas stations in the city of Atlanta. But I'm on E, E, E. I tried to go to two gas stations. Both of them were closed.

PETERSONS: Back to weather education. You know, it's the first thing we say, Carol, every time we know a storm is coming, always put extra gear in your car, extra jacket, mitten, gloves, hats, always have a full tank of gas. Because this can happen at any point a storm comes through.

So it really comes down to all the basics. But you're right, people in other parts of the country are familiar with it. Unfortunately in the southeast it was just a collision of a whole bunch of things at the same time. It was that perfect storm of timing. Not planning and definitely not having the gas in the gas tank and that warm hat to put on your head.

COSTELLO: Man, I'm from Ohio. There's no excuse.

Thank you, Indra.

OK. So not only Georgia is experiencing this problem but Alabama and North Carolina, too. We'll get you updated on those states. We're still awaiting Atlanta's mayor, Kasim Reed. Apparently he's stuck in traffic. We're trying to get him on the phone. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSTELLO: Two inches of snow and it was a -- it was like the apocalypse here in Atlanta. It's hard to believe unless you hear it straight from the horse's mouth, what a nightmare this has been in the city of Atlanta.

Matthew Holcombe is the vice president of engineering here at the CNN center in Atlanta. He has been trapped on the highway for 16 hours now. He left work at 4:00 yesterday afternoon.

Matt, I just can't even imagine how you feel at this point.

MATTHEW HOLCOMBE, CNN VICE PRESIDENT OF ENGINEERING: It's surreal. It really is. I'm really tired. But, you know, I thought leaving at 4:00 yesterday I was actually going to be behind it a little bit. But it didn't turn out too well. You know, I actually sat in traffic at 285 and 75 which was major freeways that are north of the city. I've sat for 12 hours and never moved.

COSTELLO: You sat for 12 hours and never moved. So how --

(LAUGHTER)

HOLCOMBE: Yes.

COSTELLO: Just can't even -- are you going out of your mind?

HOLCOMBE: Yes, I'm close to losing it. But the good news is, this morning, I've just -- I've had enough. And so instead of just sitting there I actually went south on 75, and came back around and headed back north on 75. And completely avoided the 285-75 Interchange. And now I'm going 10 miles an hour. It feels like I'm flying, but hopefully -- hopefully I'm going to -- it took me 16 hours to go about 20 miles. I got about 20 more miles to go. We'll see how long that takes.

COSTELLO: So just take off your CNN hat. I just want you to be a citizen of Atlanta. If you could say anything to city officials right now, what would that be?

HOLCOMBE: What was the plan? I mean, two weeks -- two or three weeks ago, the kids were left out of school when it got cold here. Knowing what was coming, I can't believe they didn't have the kids out of school and there wasn't a better plan on the roads. I mean, it's a nightmare. And I have yet to see a snowplow or anybody slinging sand. I haven't seen it. I've been on the road for over 16 hours now. I've not seen anybody out. Down the road.

COSTELLO: I'm with you. I haven't seen a snowplow either. Like where are they?

HOLCOMBE: At 285 and 75, I mean, it's a pretty major interchange, if you know Atlanta roads. And they've done nothing. I have seen literally hundreds of cars parked on the side of the road. I saw a lady carrying her kid in a blanket down the side of the road. I mean, it's -- people going the wrong way on major, major interstates. It's scary stuff.

COSTELLO: It is scary stuff. There have been more than 1,000 accidents, right? Hundred peopled injured. I'm surprised it's not been worse.

HOLCOMBE: I agree, I think -- I think it locked down so quickly. I think people are still sitting for the most part. Maybe that stopped some of it. But I think I've seen most of those accidents -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Well, Matthew, I'm glad you're -- I'm glad that you're traveling at 10 miles per hour. That's great news this morning. Please be careful out there -- Matthew Holcombe.

HOLCOMBE: Just so you know -- just so you know, Carol, I'm not going to make it into work today.

(LAUGHTER)

COSTELLO: OK. You just told everyone here and that's perfectly OK.

Thank you so much for joining me on the phone. I appreciate it.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)