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Atlanta gambled, lost on winter weather

ATLANTA — There are bad commutes, and then there is what happened here this week.

When a light snow started falling Tuesday afternoon, Saquana Bonaparte, 31, left her factory job and headed out to get her daughter from school in one of Atlanta's northern suburbs.

She ended up inching along in her car for almost 12 hours and survived on a half bag of beef jerky and a small bottle of Mountain Dew. With no bathroom, she did what she had to in the car.

Like tens of thousands of Atlanta-area drivers, she spent the night stuck on the road with other desperate drivers who had never seen anything like the sheet of ice that coated the city.

"It was like something you would see if they told you the plague broke out and you had to run for your life," she said.

By late Wednesday afternoon, some people remained stuck on the highway, but the thousands of children who had been forced to spend the night at school had made it home.

By keeping schools and government offices open in advance of the storm, metropolitan Atlanta gambled and lost.

Mayor Kasim Reed and Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican facing re-election in November, were by turns defensive and apologetic Wednesday.

"We don't want to be accused of crying wolf," said Deal, who pointed out that the storm had been forecast to just brush the south side of the city.

If the city had closed and the storm had been as light as some forecasters had told him it was going to be, he said, money would have been lost and people would have complained.

"We would have shut a major city down for a day," he said. "We can never promise that we will always be correct when it comes to deciding what Mother Nature will do."

Reed, who was combative in media briefings, said many of the problems had occurred on state roads. The city was more prepared than it had ever been, he said.

The real problem, he said, was a vast and unexpected flow of people who took to the roads at nearly the same time.

"We made a mistake by not staggering when people should leave, so I'll take responsibility for that," he said.

Other cities were caught off guard, as well. In Birmingham, Ala., more than 1,500 students spent Tuesday night at school and more were expected to be stuck at school Wednesday night, too.

Even James Spann, Alabama's best-known television meteorologist, known for his accuracy in predicting the path of tornadoes and other severe weather, called his forecast for Tuesday a bust.

In all, six Southern states declared emergencies. The rare Southern winter storm stretched to Brownsville, Texas. Ice and snow coated Charleston, S.C.; Augusta, Ga.; New Orleans; and dozens of other Southern communities ill-equipped to deal with it.

But nothing compared to the Atlanta experience, which began when many of the city's residents took to the roads from noon to 2 p.m. There was not much snow — only a couple of inches in most parts of the city — but as parents' vehicles, school buses and tractor-trailers filled the highways, the roads iced over, and everything stopped.

Ginger Reid, 44, waited for eight hours to see her son, Ross, 11, who was stuck on a bus. He had only a quarter of a cookie someone shared with him to eat. He and other children were rescued when a group of fathers made their way down a hill on foot and took the boys to cars that whisked them to a parking lot, where Reid was waiting with pizza.

Atlanta was crippled by an ice storm in 2011, and officials had vowed not to be caught unprepared again. But in this case, few closings or other measures were ordered ahead of time.

Deal, the Georgia governor, faulted government forecasters, saying they warned the storm would strike south of Atlanta.

However, the National Weather Service explicitly cautioned on Monday that snow-covered roads "will make travel difficult." Around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, the agency issued a winter storm warning for metro Atlanta and cautioned people not to travel except in an emergency.

Around the time the traffic jam started, Deal and Reed were at an award ceremony recognizing the mayor as the "2014 Georgian of the Year." Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor left before 1:30 p.m. and was in constant contact with emergency officials.

At Atlanta's Deerwood Elementary School, librarian Brian Ashley spent Tuesday night with a dozen of his colleagues and 35 children on cots in the gym.

The teachers and other staff members opened up the pantry in the cafeteria, making pizza and chicken nuggets with carrots and apples for dinner.

Ashley said officials never should have allowed schools to open Tuesday.

"They were forewarned about the weather, and they were ill-prepared," he said. "If schools were canceled yesterday, we would not have had the catastrophe we did last night and today."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Frozen Florida Panhandle

Two people were believed killed in a 17-vehicle accident that included four semitrailer-trucks on an icy interstate bridge Tuesday night in the Florida Panhandle, which got a dusting of snow. Santa Rosa County emergency officials said divers pulled the body of one person from the water Wednesday and were searching for another person who is presumed to have died in the collision that happened on a span of Interstate 10 that crosses the Blackwater River. Three people were taken to Santa Rosa Medical Center for crash-related injuries, officials said.