Skip to main content

When 2.6 inches of snow made hell freeze over

By Melissa Fay Greene
updated 2:11 PM EST, Thu January 30, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Melissa Greene: Fort Lee, New Jersey, traffic jam was nothing compared with Atlanta's
  • Greene: Everybody tried to go home at once with the first snowflake in 16-degree weather
  • Greene: "SnowedOutAtlanta" connected the stranded with help from those at home
  • Greene woke up to 46-degree weather, but that was the temperature of her bedroom

Editor's note: Melissa Fay Greene is a nonfiction writer and a two-time National Book Award finalist. Some of her books are "Praying for Sheetrock," "The Temple Bombing," "There Is No Me Without You," and "No Biking in the House Without a Helmet."

(CNN) -- Here's where things went wrong: On Tuesday, January 28, 2014, at 1:30 in the afternoon, in response to the sparkle of several snowflakes in the air above Atlanta, virtually the entire adult population of America's ninth most populous metro area stood up, left their workplaces, got into their cars, and created a traffic deadlock of legendary proportions.

Good news for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that he was nowhere near here at the time, nor could he be linked via administrative assistants to our wintry surprise. But among Great Traffic Jams of the 21st Century, move over Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Melissa Fay Greene
Melissa Fay Greene

My friend Johanna Norry, a Georgia State University grad student, tried to leave her parking place on a downtown parking deck and traveled -- in one hour and seven minutes -- 23 feet. My friend Elida Baverman posted on Facebook: "Six hours and 18 minutes to get home from Perimeter Mall. Wish my car made it, too." My husband's law partner, Ed Garland, inched along I-75 north toward home from 5 p.m. Tuesday until 1 a.m. Wednesday, at which point his car ran out of gas. He abandoned it and set off on foot through the snowdrifts, reaching his home at 2 in the morning.

What other cities can learn from Atlanta's ice debacle

By all accounts -- I wasn't going out there -- the city's throughways on Wednesday looked like parking lots, where cars with empty gas tanks sat frozen in the Arctic air. (It was 16 degrees Fahrenheit Wednesday morning.) Some of the cars had been abandoned; others might have still had people in them. "If you are stranded and cannot get through to 911," announced the Atlanta Police Department, "please send the Atlanta Police Department a message through Facebook or Twitter."

One can only imagine: #GetMeTheHellOutofAtlanta.

Mayor Reed: Atlanta is up and running
Hot chocolate given to stranded drivers
Snowstorm sleepover at Home Depot

A special Facebook page, "SnowedOutAtlanta," was created to connect the cold, stranded, and demoralized with the warm, housebound, and generous. People in vast traffic jams, with taillights twinkling in endless lines toward every horizon, not only sat in cars steadily running out of gas, they called for help and comfort on cell phones running out of juice. Thus most people seeking help online did so for third parties: "My boyfriend has been stuck in traffic for nine hours now," wrote a woman named Laura. "He has a heart condition and told me he's starting to feel lightheaded."

Some posted longingly: "My husband left work yesterday at 4 p.m," a woman wrote in at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning. "Of all days he left his phone at home. ... He had no means of getting in touch with me. If anyone has seen or heard from him, please reply."

Scores of people wrote to offer beds and meals to freezing, stranded travelers. Many offered to drive to pickup points to meet the strangers. Home Depot announced all stores would remain open all night, offering warmth and shelter. Photos surfaced of people in their business clothes asleep on the floor in the aisles of CVS drugstores.

A bakery owner offered to donate goods to any place stranded people were gathering. "Warm home, food, and phone to anyone who needs it!" posted a woman in Monroe, Georgia.

Was Atlanta asleep at the wheel?

"My sister has been stuck in her car since 4:30 p.m. yesterday," posted a woman named Valencia on Wednesday, 17 hours after her sister got on the road. "Nothing to eat. She's nearly out of gas. She is diabetic. Does not have her meds. Can someone please help? She's at Memorial Drive by Alonzo Crim School. Please somebody?"

"Lawd I'm praying!" was the first response, from a woman named Kye, after which a woman named Keirsten posted: "I can walk to her! Call me. Trying to find insulin!" Then: "Sending people that way now. What kind of car and where?"

"Champagne-brown Infinity. She made it to the gas station across from AutoZone."

"My friend Jessica is walking that way right now."

"Thank you! You found her!" posted Valencia; then, a bit later: "She made it home! Praise God!! ... Good people still left in this world!"

The landscapes and language of apocalypse -- many headlines compared Atlanta to a scene in "The Walking Dead" -- bore no relation to the footage, the yardage, the square ... inchage of snow actually dumped on the city.

How much snow fell? What quantity of snow do you think it takes to paralyze a metropolitan area of 5,490,000 citizens? What kind of whiteout does it take to halt every artery and interstate of this national traffic hub, this city that is home to a highway intersection known as "Spaghetti Junction" and to a college (Georgia Perimeter) and a former Atlanta Braves player ("Perimeter" Perez) both named after Interstate 285?

How much snow did it take to strand thousands of children overnight in their schools, send trucks and buses spinning out of control on surface streets and highways, decree that a baby should be born in a car trapped by traffic gridlock, and inspire Gov. Nathan Deal to declare a statewide State of Emergency and to call out the National Guard? It was 2.6 inches, OK? Or, as some news sources reported, "up to 3 inches," a bit of forgivable inflation that would seem to suggest it might have been quantities up to and including 2.9 inches. Nearly 3!

But it doesn't take depth of snow to ice the streets, and it doesn't take a blizzard to panic the citizenry in a city without snowplows, snow shovels, windshield ice scrapers, or even, seemingly, a product known as "salt." Just a sprinkling of snow will do, a delicate frosting, a few curlicues from Jack Frost -- and here we are, immobilized, freezing, turning in desperation to strangers and Home Depot.

Opinion: Stranded in Atlanta

I wasn't on the road Tuesday. And I woke up to 46-degree weather, not 16. But the 46-degree weather was in my bedroom because our furnace died during the night. Two weeks ago, when a deep freeze rolled across Atlanta, our pipes burst. We seem to be living in close synchrony with every national weather event.

So while tens of thousands of our fellow citizens rumbled nowhere, I screened "How to Fix Your Own Furnace" videos on Youtube. Inspired, I descended into the freezing basement and spent 15 minutes trying to remove the front of the furnace. Then my husband unscrewed a protruding screw and it fell off.

I peered deep into the machinery of the still and very cold machine and confirmed by phone that no repair person south of the Mason-Dixon Line could travel the treacherous roads to our house.

My husband, children, two dogs, two cats, and I huddled around electric space heaters all day. As I type, my feet are wrapped in a blanket and a space heater is warming a 4-inch stretch on the side of my right leg. My teenage daughter has spent the day wrapped in an electric blanket on the sofa, with the dachshund wrapped inside it, too.

But it could be worse. I could be on I-285.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Melissa Fay Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT