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 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT