ATLANTA (AP) — A layer of snow and ice and a record-breaking blast of cold closed runways, highways, schools and government offices across the South and sent cars sliding off roads Wednesday in a swath of the country ill-equipped to deal with wintry weather. At least eight people died, including a baby in a car that plunged off an icy overpass into a Louisiana canal.
Icicles hung from a statue of jazz musicians in normally balmy New Orleans, and drivers unaccustomed to ice spun their wheels across Atlanta, which was brought to a near-standstill by little more than an inch of snow. The beach in Biloxi, Mississippi, got a light coating. And the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill canceled classes as the storm unloaded at least 4 inches by late morning, with up to 8 inches forecast.
The storm turned the morning rush hour treacherous, though many people heeded warnings to stay off the roads if possible.
Even the best drivers had trouble: Retired NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted that he had just used his winch to help pull a car out of a ditch when he drove off the road and into a tree in North Carolina.
“NC stay off the roads today/tonight. 5 minutes after helping these folks I center punched a pine tree,” he reported. A spokesman said Earnhardt was not hurt and his pickup had only minor damage.
By midday, skies were bright and sunny in many places, but temperatures were expected to remain below freezing throughout the day in much of the region, and roads are likely to remain icy into Thursday.
“People keep asking when we will get the all-clear,” said Georgia Transportation Department spokeswoman Natalie Dale. “It will not happen today.”
Thousands of schoolchildren and teachers got the day off. Many cities canceled meetings and court sessions, and some businesses closed. Slippery runways and the need to de-ice planes forced cancellations and delays in New Orleans; Memphis, Tennessee; and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Electricity usage surged to record highs as people struggled to keep warm.
In Alabama, where some places got at least 3 inches of story, dairy farmer Will Gilmer bundled up for the drive to his milking barn before daybreak in rural Lamar County, the thermometer reading 7 degrees (minus 14 Celsius).
“I probably had four layers on and then insulated coveralls and a heavy coat on over that. I made it OK except for my toes,” he said.
The mercury dropped to record lows overnight in several places in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi. It was 21 degrees (minus 6 Celsius) before dawn in New Orleans, breaking the city’s record of 23 (minus 5 Celsius), set on the same date in 1977.
At least four people died in Louisiana, including a man who was knocked off an elevated portion of Interstate 10 in New Orleans when a pickup spun out of control on ice, and an 8-month-old baby who was in a car that slid into a canal in suburban New Orleans. The baby’s mother was reported in critical condition.
Two others died along an icy stretch of I-75 southeast of Atlanta when a driver lost control and hit them, one of them inside a stopped car and the other standing beside it, authorities said. One person died in a weather-related traffic accident in West Virginia, and a homeless man was found dead, apparently of exposure, in freezing Houston.
Along the Gulf Coast, ice pellets covered the tops of sago palm trees, and stretches of I-10 were closed in Louisiana and across Alabama’s Mobile Bay.
Downtown Atlanta — the corporate capital of the South, notorious for its heavy traffic — was eerily quiet. Dozens of accidents were reported across the metropolitan area, one involving a salt truck. Some motorists drove through red lights rather than stop and risk sliding.
“This is kind of my scene,” said Sarah Snider, a zookeeper at the Atlanta zoo who recently moved from Vermont and marveled at how little snow it took to shut down the city.
“Y’all aren’t going to make it!” a driver in a pickup truck yelled at two drivers in compact cars that were spinning their wheels on an icy boulevard near SunTrust Park, where the Atlanta Braves play. “You’re going to slide back down the hill! Turn around!”
Outside Five Points Station, the center of Atlanta’s commuter rail system, a man fell on the sidewalk and appeared unresponsive. An ambulance arrived quickly.
Adrian Benton, a 26-year-old native of snowy Buffalo, New York, tried to help.
“The up-north way of dealing with snow needs to come down here,” Burton said. Atlanta needed “snowplows, salt already going down last night so people can get around.”
But Susan Luciano, walking in her snow-blanketed Peachtree City, Georgia, neighborhood, was delighted: “It is the most romantic setting. It is beautiful. This is God’s masterpiece. It’s refreshing, it’s rejuvenating, it’s like a postcard. It’s like our neighborhood is a living postcard.”
Snow fell in a wide band that stretched from southeastern Texas all the way to western Massachusetts. As much as 4 inches fell from North Carolina into Virginia, and in Maryland, the weather service warned of wind chills as low as minus 10 (23 below zero Celsius).