ATLANTA - The largest snowstorm in a decade iced the South yesterday, causing hundreds of traffic accidents and nine deaths. Business essentially closed for the day, and hundreds of airline flights were canceled, stranding 4,000 people overnight in Atlanta. Nearly 70,000 people lost electrical power.
In South Carolina, which got 4 to 6 inches of snow, Gov. Jim Hodges closed state offices and called out the National Guard.
Even the Weather Channel, the Atlanta-based cable station that regularly sends reporters into the eyes of hurricanes, shut down for the day to all but a few essential employees.
North of the Mason-Dixon line, a snowfall of less than a foot is just another winter's day. The South, however, is a land with few snowplows, where winter driving is rarely practiced and road salt is in short supply. Fatal car accidents occurred in suburban Atlanta, South Carolina, North Carolina and Mississippi, and the shoulders of interstates around the region were dotted with cars.
"Any time you have a significant amount of snow or ice, it's an emergency," Jay Reiff, spokesman for South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, told The Los Angeles Times. "People here are just not used to this."
A hard freeze made things worse yesterday morning and another freeze was expected early today. Warm days, like those forecast for the weekend, can be a mixed blessing because fast-melting snow turns to ice when temperatures drop at night.
Going to the airport meant risking hours of delay. Southern airports have far fewer de-icing machines than their Northern counterparts, and as a result, airlines at Hartsfield International Airport here, the nation's busiest, canceled two-thirds of their flights Wednesday night and yesterday morning. The 4,000 people who were stranded scrambled for nearby hotel rooms, and hundreds slept in the terminal, which began to resemble a Red Cross emergency shelter.
"There was no room for us anywhere," said Julia Slovell, whose family of four from Asheville, N.C., camped out at a Delta Air Lines gate Wednesday night, using backpacks for pillows. "We feel like refugees."
Stuck on the tarmac
Equally frustrated were passengers whose flights left the gate but remained on the tarmac for five or six hours waiting for their planes to be de-iced. Several passengers reported that only two de-icing machines appeared to be in use.
A spokesman for Delta said the storm hit earlier and harder than expected, leaving many planes without gates and stranding them on taxiways. "We apologize to our customers whose travel plans were severely disrupted, and we deeply regret the delays and discomfort they experienced," said spokesman Tom Slocum.
Snow is hardly unheard of in the South, but this storm was unusual in that it moved north from the Gulf of Mexico, affecting the southern tier of the region more than the northern mountains. The Carolinas get similar snowstorms every few years, said Larry Vannozzi, a meteorologist with the Southern region of the National Weather Service, but for parts of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, it was the heaviest in many years.
In Atlanta, the heaviest 24-hour snowfall to occur in recent years was 4.8 inches in 1992, according to Weather Service records. If this snowfall exceeds that - it might, once official records are confirmed - it would be the heaviest since 1940.
The storm clouds disappeared in Atlanta by yesterday afternoon, but it was snowing elsewhere, and forecasters said North Carolina could get more than a foot of snow by the end of the week. Light snow and freezing temperatures were reported even in the Florida panhandle.
Many children had not seen this much snow, and even those who wished the storm might have waited a few days until winter vacation was over nonetheless enjoyed it.
"I always wanted to build a snowman," said Noah Jenkins, 7, who was romping with friends in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park. "But it's a lot harder than I thought it would be."
Many grown-ups also needed winter refresher courses. Two tractor-trailers spun out of control on Interstate 20 in western Georgia, and traffic quickly backed up for 20 miles. One man was struck and killed by a truck in Anson County, N.C., as he stopped to help a stranded motorist. Television stations repeatedly broadcast the driving basics - don't slam on your brakes, pump them - but the lessons often went unheeded.
"I learned to drive in St. Louis, where people are a little more sophisticated on the ice," said Royal Marshall, a local radio talk show host. "Of course, the Southerners would tell you they could handle the roads just fine if we hadn't all moved down here and clogged them up."
On such days, it is assumed that employees will not go into work unless absolutely required.
"I would describe it as general panic, but I love it," said Marshall, whose show Wednesday was filled with calls from Northerners ridiculing Southern driving habits. "It's like in Spain during siesta, except it lasts all day. Everything shuts down, and people just feel entitled to take the whole day off rather than risk their lives on the road."