ATLANTA (AP) – Snow, ice and a record-breaking blast of cold closed runways, highways, schools and government offices across the South and sent cars sliding off roads Wednesday in a corner of the country ill-equipped to deal with wintry weather. At least 10 people died, including a baby in a car that plunged off a slippery overpass into a Louisiana canal.
Icicles hung from a statue of jazz musicians in normally balmy New Orleans, and drivers unaccustomed to ice spun their wheels across Atlanta, which was brought to a near-standstill by little more than an inch (2.5 centimeters) of snow. The beach in Biloxi, Mississippi, got a light coating. And the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill canceled classes as the storm unloaded at least 8 inches (20 centimeters) of snow in Durham and Greensboro.
Even the best drivers had trouble: Retired NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted that he had just used his winch to help pull a car out of a ditch when he drove off the road and into a tree in North Carolina.
“NC stay off the roads today/tonight. 5 minutes after helping these folks I center punched a pine tree,” he reported. A spokesman said Earnhardt was not hurt and his pickup had only minor damage.
Though skies were sunny and bright in many places, temperatures remained below freezing throughout the day in much of the South.
Thousands of schoolchildren and teachers got the day off. Many cities canceled meetings and court proceedings, and some businesses closed. Slippery runways and the need to de-ice planes forced cancellations and delays in New Orleans; Memphis, Tennessee; and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Electricity usage surged as people struggled to keep warm.
In Alabama, where some places got at least 3 inches (7 centimeters) of snow, dairy farmer Will Gilmer bundled up for the drive to his milking barn before daybreak in rural Lamar County, the thermometer reading 7 degrees (minus 14 Celsius).
“I probably had four layers on and then insulated coveralls and a heavy coat on over that. I made it OK except for my toes,” he said.
The mercury dropped to record lows overnight in several places in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi. It was 21 degrees (minus 6 Celsius) before dawn in New Orleans, breaking the city’s record of 23 (minus 5 Celsius), set on the same date in 1977.
At least four people died in Louisiana, including a man knocked off an elevated portion of Interstate 10 in New Orleans when a pickup spun out on ice, and an 8-month-old baby in a car that slid into a canal in suburban New Orleans. The baby’s mother was in critical condition.
Two others died along an icy stretch of I-75 southeast of Atlanta when a driver lost control and hit them, one of them inside a stopped car and the other standing beside it, authorities said.
One person died in a weather-related traffic accident in West Virginia. In the freezing Houston area, a homeless man was found dead behind a trash bin, apparently of exposure, while an 82-year-old woman with dementia succumbed to the cold after walking away from her home. Also, a woman was discovered dead in a snowy park near City Hall in Memphis. The temperature was around 10 degrees (minus 12 Celsius) when she was found.
Snow fell in a wide band that stretched from southeastern Texas all the way to western Massachusetts. And along the Gulf Coast, ice pellets covered the tops of sago palm trees, and stretches of I-10 were closed in Louisiana and across Alabama’s Mobile Bay.
Downtown Atlanta – the corporate capital of the South, notorious for its heavy traffic – was eerily quiet.
Susan Luciano, walking in snow-blanketed Peachtree City just south of Atlanta, was delighted: “It is the most romantic setting. It is beautiful. This is God’s masterpiece … a living postcard.”
Still, dozens of accidents were reported across the Atlanta metro area, one involving a salt truck.
Southern states and cities don’t have the large fleets of snowplows, salting trucks and other snow-removal equipment common in the North.
“Y’all aren’t going to make it!” a driver in a pickup truck yelled at two drivers in compact cars that were spinning their wheels on an icy boulevard near SunTrust Park, where the Atlanta Braves play. “You’re going to slide back down the hill! Turn around!”
Adrian Benton, a 26-year-old native of snowy Buffalo, New York, tried to help.
“The up-north way of dealing with snow needs to come down here,” Burton said of snowplows and salting up North.
Yet one weather expert who grew up in brutal Michigan winters and now lives in Atlanta said Southern winters have the North beat.
Ryan Maue, a meteorologist with the private forecaster Weather.US, said Atlanta’s mostly untreated roads were fraught with icy peril during his car outing Wednesday to the supermarket.
“My little car was struggling even to move,” he said, adding he worried just as much about Southern motorists risking their necks – and those of others in their “non-winterized cars.” But he told The Associated Press that Southern comfort is on the way, with the mercury to start rising above freezing by midday Thursday in the region and even into the low 60s (15 Celsius) in spots by the weekend.
Said Maue: “We should feel a widespread warming throughout the South. It will feel wonderful.”
Reeves reported from Birmingham, Alabama. Associated Press writers Jeff Martin in Atlanta; Jonathan Drew in Durham, North Carolina; David Warren in Dallas; Rebecca Reynolds Yonker in Louisville, Kentucky; Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tennessee; and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri, contributed to this report.