Snow and ice strand 800 students at schools, causes treacherous commutes

(Vicki Montet/CNN)

(Vicki Montet/CNN)

Cars stuck in ditches. Children stranded at schools that parents can’t reach. Icy roads and snow that shows no sign of stopping.

As a winter storm slammed into a broad swath of the South on Tuesday, authorities warned drivers to stay off the streets.

“This is a very dangerous situation,” Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said in the afternoon. “People need to stay at home. They need to stay there until conditions improve.”

Motorists in major metropolitan areas including Atlanta sat trapped in gridlock as schools and offices shut down, unleashing hordes of vehicles onto slushy roadways.

While Northerners may laugh at their Southern friends’ panic over a dusting of snow, the threat is real: With relatively few resources to battle snow and ice, public works crews may have a difficult time keeping up with any significant accumulation.

Add to that the fact that millions of Southern drivers aren’t used to driving on snow or ice, and things were getting tricky fast.

Students stuck at schools

In Alabama, where freezing rain made driving perilous, Bentley declared a state of emergency and said he had activated 350 National Guard troops to help respond to the storm. Emergency officials warned drivers to stay off the roads and urged people stuck in their cars to stay inside.

“The weather right now, the temperatures and the wind chill, if you step out of your car, are very dangerous,” said Art Faulkner, the state’s director of emergency management.

In Birmingham, Melanie Wilson tried to drive after she got a message that her children’s school was closing Tuesday morning.

“Immediately, I almost had an accident,” she said. “The school buses were at the bottom of our hill and you could tell the drivers were not sure they should try to make it up the hill. We’re not sure where the ball was dropped. We heard it was going to be a light dusting with little accumulation.”

She ditched her car after it spun out on a steep hill, and trudged through the snow to pick up her children and make it home safely.

“The children enjoyed it,” she said. “It was beautiful, a winter wonderland. It was lovely except for worrying about everybody else who can’t get home to their families.”

There were 800 students stuck in schools in Birmingham, Alabama, Tuesday evening as the storm snarled traffic, Superintendent Craig Witherspoon said.

“Folks are still trying to get home,” he said. “We’ve got kids in schools. Staff is staying with them, feeding them. High schools are showing movies.”

Bentley urged parents who are unable to reach their children to remain calm.

“I know the anxiety there,” he said. “I want to reassure all the parents that if you trust your teacher to take care of your child during the day, they will be taken care of tonight.”

At the Alabama Waldorf School, about 20 students were stranded late Tuesday after state officials urged parents not to drive in the snow. Administrator Lisa Grupe said a sleepover with the remaining students was planned at the school, but a last-minute decision was made to spend the night at the nearby home of a former faculty member.

“We’re having a house party for 20,” she said, adding that the faculty member’s husband was making a giant pot of hot soup. The children, she said, were taking it all in stride.

“They’re doing really well,” she said. “They’re just having an extended play date. … We all looked like ducks walking in the snow together.”

Traffic gridlock traps motorists

In the Atlanta suburbs, school buses were stuck in traffic for hours. Some students were stranded at school waiting for their parents to pick them up.

In downtown Atlanta, streets were clogged as cars became trapped in gridlock after at least an inch of snow had fallen.

For one stranded motorist — it really was a situation of life and death.

Police in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs said an officer helped a woman give birth on the side of Interstate 285.

Traffic jams on snow-covered roads had stopped the woman from making it to the hospital and blocked paramedics from reaching her.

That’s when a police officer stepped in, helping deliver the baby girl Tuesday evening, Capt. Steve Rose said.

As snow, sleet and freezing rain pelted much of the state, authorities warned of dangerous driving conditions and said the roads would likely get worse. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency as the storm hit.

“We ask people to please stay home and, when they get there, not drive unless it is necessitated by an emergency,” Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Natalie Dale said.

The city has spent more than $1 million on snow-removal equipment since 2011, city Public Works Director Richard Mendoza told CNN affiliate WSB before Tuesday’s storm hit.

“You prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Mendoza said.

Airlines cancel flights

The storms also snarled air travel across the country.

Airlines on Tuesday canceled more than 3,100 flights within, into or out of the United States, with hundreds each at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Houston’s George Bush International Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport and Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, according to FlightAware.com, which tracks cancellations due to both weather and mechanical problems.

It’s not just the South that is shuddering. Midwesterners and others more accustomed to bitter weather are, too.

All told, about 140 million people in 34 states were under some sort of winter weather warning or advisory, from snow and ice to bitterly cold wind chills, according to CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller.

Sleet and freezing rain began falling early Tuesday in East Texas, which along with Louisiana, was the first area to be affected by the winter storm.

“This town is shutting down,” New Orleans cab driver August Delaney said.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared a state of emergency and warned residents to remember what happened when temperatures dipped toward the freezing mark less than a week ago.

“We had bridges that were frozen over,” he said. “We had accidents on those bridges, a fairly large pileup on the Green Bridge. Sometime not long ago, when they had a similar event, there were a thousand crashes, and there were fatalities, and we want to make sure that we avoid all of that.”

Robert Latham, the state’s emergency management director, warned residents to expect power outages as well.

“We’re looking at a part of the state that has a large number of pine trees,” Latham said. “I can tell you that as ice accumulates on pine trees, limbs will break. Trees will fall. Power will be out.”