by Marisol Bello
The usually bustling roadways in the Atlanta metropolitan area resembled a scene in a post-apocalyptic world during and after Tuesday's snow and ice storm.
Cars abandoned at odd angles on side streets, thoroughfares and major interstates. People in this car-dependent city walked for miles, hunched over and huddled from the cold. Many had no coats, hats or gloves.
"It was a like a scene from The Walking Dead," said Maura Neill, 38, referring to the television series about a post-apocalyptic world overtaken by zombies.
"The mistake here is that no one expected the snow to hit as quickly," said Neill, who was stranded in gridlock for 10 hours.
Neill's story is typical of the chaos that gripped the region.
A real estate agent, Neill had lunch with her husband Tuesday as the snow began to fall. She left him at his job at 12:05 p.m., anticipating a 20-minute drive to her home from midtown Atlanta to the suburb of Johns Creek.
But after 45 minutes of getting nowhere on Interstate 75, Neill got off the highway and took a side road. And that's where she got stuck – for almost seven hours. At one point, she stopped at a Target to use the bathroom and stretch her legs. It was a ghost town inside, she said.
She kept a running log of her progress on Facebook under the hashtag, Atlantarctica. By 7:30 p.m., she wrote, "I'm about to give up and find someone nearby with a spare room."
Friends in the nearby town of Dunwoody told her they had spare rooms. But she had to get to them first. And she was running out of gas. She waited 20 minutes at a station, only to find that it ran out of fuel when she was next in line.
"I was running on fumes," she said. She was three-quarters of a mile away from her friends' home when she ran into a police roadblock. The hill was closed because it was a sheet of ice.
So she left the car parked in a subdivision and walked. Neill was driving a rental, a Hyundai Sonata, because her SUV had been rear-ended. That meant she didn't have the usual supplies — boots, blankets, water — that she kept in her vehicle.
Instead, she was wearing jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater and "not very warm, but very cute" boots. She had no coat or other winter gear. She took off, walking on lawns because the road was too icy.
Her friends met her partway. The couple had directed traffic for two hours, trying to get people home, she said. They also took in a 24-year-old girl who had been stranded in her car during the storm.
Neill's husband, meanwhile, was still stuck in his office Wednesday morning.
"People up North, they deal with it, but what people may not understand is that we don't have the infrastructure to deal with this," she said. "There are people here who have never lived through snow and ice."
By Wednesday morning, the sun shone brightly, but many greeted the day where they'd spent the night: their cars, schools, workplaces or a friend's couch.
Corey Smith, 23, was still in his compact Chevy Aveo at 10 a.m. Wednesday, right where he'd spent the past 11 hours on Interstate 285.
He'd left his job as a beauty adviser at a mall at 5 p.m., and encountered a traffic jam. He'd taken side roads, but when his car couldn't make it up a hill, he decided to get on the highway. He said cars were moving, slowly but steadily, until 11 p.m. And then, he said, they just stopped.
Motorists started abandoning cars, trucks, school buses — or like him, they slept in their cars, he said. He wasn't as prepared as he would have hoped. He was wearing a suit, but had no coat, hat or gloves. That's what kept him from walking in the cold.
He had no food or water. And he was running on less than a quarter-tank of gas.
"This just threw everybody off, we weren't prepared for it," he said.
Dina Gundersen and her family were home in Smyrna, all warm and toasty, but they could see the traffic nightmare behind their house on the East-West Connector, a four-lane highway that runs northwest of Atlanta. Cars were piling up, slipping and sliding. As the night wore on, the couple and a group of neighbors decided to jump in and help.
They collected everything in their pantries, from English muffins to Rice Krispies treats and bottled water around their neighborhood. Then about a dozen of them convoyed in four cars and brought their treats to the roadway.
Gundersen and a neighbor went one way; the rest of the group the other way. She and her neighbor gave out food and water. Then they started to help cars that were heading west turn around so they could use the eastbound section of the road, which was empty. But it meant backing cars past a median so they could cut across the road.
Gundersen even backed the car of one elderly motorist who had trouble seeing at night. The neighbors fed and calmed another motorist, a diabetic who hadn't eaten in six hours. Other neighbors physically pushed cars that were stuck on a hill.
"We thought, 'What can we do, there are only a few of us, and literally there were thousands of people stuck," she said. "But what we ended up doing changed the traffic in that section. Otherwise, those people might still be stuck in it."