Atlanta is shut down — businesses, roads, government in general — and while that’s generated plenty of furor among residents, the angst is only exacerbated by the overnight uncertainty involving many of the city’s kids.
Across the state, and even extending into Alabama, there were reports of children spending the night in schools, their parents or school buses unable to navigate treacherous conditions that Georgia Department of Public Safety Commissioner Col. Mark McDonough said caused almost 1,000 accidents in the Georgia capital alone.
Fifty Atlanta students remained on school buses overnight, and seven of them still weren’t home by 5 a.m. ET, Atlanta Public Schools spokeswoman Kimberly Willis Green said.
Atlanta police delivered food to the kids, who were all home or returned to schools by 9 a.m. ET, she said. As of Wednesday morning, “several hundred students at nine schools are sheltered in place,” she said.
Facing critics who ask how fewer than 3 inches of snow could cripple the city, especially after it tangled with another debilitating storm in 2011, Mayor Kasim Reed assured Atlantans the city was working to open roads and asked them to stay at home.
“What I want to say to them is hold off on trying to get to them. What I can assure (you) is they are safe,” he said. “The safest place for them was in the school system. … I know it is very tough.”
Among those still stuck in schools Wednesday morning were 2,000 Fulton County Schools students and 400 Atlanta Public Schools kids, said Gov. Nathan Deal.
The students will be “transported as soon as possible back to their homes,” and National Guard troops and state police will escort school buses, Deal said.
There were uplifting stories amid the chaos, however, as the city schools’ Twitter feed and a specially created Facebook page, Snowed Out Atlanta, which had more than 43,000 members as of Wednesday afternoon, showed a steady stream of gratitude alongside the messages of frustration.
At E. Rivers Elementary School, about 150 students and teachers spent the night on gym mats, according to CNN affiliate WSB. They watched movies, ate a warm meal Tuesday night and were served French toast for breakfast, the station reported.
One father, who identified himself only as Mark, said he walked 6 miles to spend the night with his 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. He said it put his mind at ease to see how the school staff was taking care of the youngsters.
“It was fantastic. All the students seemed like they were having a great time,” he told WSB. “It looked like a very large sleepover party.”
Added young Elizabeth, “We got to watch four or five movies.”
Heartwarming stories were heavily outnumbered by those from worried parents who had to spend the night without their children.
Corliss Collins, for instance, said she spoke to her granddaughter, one of about 200 students who spent the night at New Manchester High School in Douglasville, west of Atlanta, around 8 a.m. The granddaughter ate dinner and breakfast there, but told her grandmother that school officials were asking parents to pick up their children because the cafeteria had run out of food, Collins said.
Principal Constance Craft told CNN there was no truth to reports the school had no food.
“We are trying to get teachers who have been here since early morning yesterday home to their families. Our manpower is exhausted, and our children are ready to be home,” she said in an e-mail.
Craft later added that the National Guard troops who helped escort the students home were “wonderful.” All students had been sent home by lunchtime Wednesday, she said.
In West Atlanta, about 60 students from Riverwood International Charter School remained at a Kroger supermarket Wednesday morning after being transported there from their buses, which were stuck on I-285, said store employee Kim Bradley. The store provided food for them, she said.
About 90 high school students were initially taken there overnight in ambulances, with Highway Emergency Road Operators clearing a path, the state Department of Transportation said. The four buses were evacuated about 6 a.m. after being stuck in ice and traffic all night, the department said.
A total of 51 schoolbuses “needed support” because of the snow and ice, said Matthew Kallmyer, director of Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency.
Other reports from Georgia and Alabama include:
— Eight students from Marietta City Schools, northwest of Atlanta, spent the night in the school bus depot, and 669 students spent the night at eight schools in the system, said spokesman Thomas Algarin. The system was working to get them all home, he said Wednesday morning.
“Our schools were prepared for this,” Algarin said, adding that Marietta High School’s culinary team a “terrific gourmet meal last night.”
— Schools in Cherokee County, Georgia, north of Atlanta, reported 150 students remained at 11 schools as of Wednesday morning. The number had dwindled to 10 as of 12:15 p.m. ET.
“Students are being kept safe, warm and fed, and staff are doing their best to keep them entertained with movies, games, books and other activities,” spokeswoman Barbara Jacoby said in a statement.
— In Georgia’s Paulding and Douglas counties, west of Atlanta, schools reported about 1,800 collective students were sheltered at county schools, CNN affiliate WXIA reported. In Douglas County, the schools offered shelter to people had gotten stuck on the roads or walked to the schools, the station reported.
— In Hoover, Alabama, one bus with 61 children was stuck until 6 a.m. ET, but the kids were safe, said spokesman Jason Gaston, and another stranded bus had its 21 occupants moved to a local children’s hospital.
About 4,000 students and 350 adults — including some community members who couldn’t make it home — were sheltered in Hoover schools Wednesday morning, Gaston said, adding that the cafeteria was well stocked and the schools were prepared to host those in need until the roads cleared. Students were watching movies and playing video games, he said.
iReporter Monica Cantwell said she spent the night in her office at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and her 13-year-old daughter was stuck at her middle school in Hoover.
The school separated the kids by gender and put them into small groups at bedtime. The kids were playing games and watching videos in the gym and watching videos, she said, and her daughter had texted her to say was bored and none too thrilled to be spending the night on campus.
— As of 8 a.m., at least 1,400 students spent the night in Birmingham, Alabama-area schools, and none spent the night on buses because they were either shuttled back to school or picked up by parents, said Jefferson County Emergency Management officer Bob Ammons.
Steve Smith, associate superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, told CNN that roughly 1 million people attempted to go home Tuesday, gnarling traffic on Atlanta’s roads and highways.
“The storm was much more intense than anyone knew, and even with our efforts of early dismissal, we still ran into the challenge of having the gridlock,” he said.
Smith declined to say when the students would be home but said they’d be reunited with their parents as soon as conditions allowed it.
Could the city have handled the situation better? Sure, he said.
“There’s always room for improvement, but we’re just appreciative of our parents who have been understanding and patient with us, and our bus drivers have really been the heroes in this situation. They’ve made some real sacrifices,” he said. “Our staff with students as well have made sacrifices. So our principals and staff, they’ve worked with us and have been very cooperative.”
Birmingham Mayor William Bell, too, said his city was expecting a “light dusting,” and by the time they realized the severity of the wintry weather, “it was too late.”
“All of the businesses and schools began to let out. It clogged up our interstate system, which then led to a clogging of the side roads and many people became stranded,” he said. “We have had to scurry to try to play catch up and all of our people working in the public works department, our public safety units within the fire and the police department, they’ve all been out overnight to try to deal with the stranded motorists.”
Devon Sayers, Victor Blackwell, Paul Caron, Kate Bolduan and Jamie Morrison contributed to this report.