ATLANTA — The parking lots otherwise known as Georgia interstates were clearing out Thursday as the city began to emerge from its icy, two-day gridlock.
The snowstorm that swept across the Deep South this week was blamed for more than a dozen deaths and created havoc for millions, prompting six states to declare emergencies. Nowhere were the problems more severe than in the Atlanta area, where less than 3 inches of snow sent cars and trucks spinning across major roads.
Thousands of motorists spent long hours sitting in traffic Tuesday — and many gave up and walked away. Crystal Paulk-Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said 2,029 vehicles were abandoned on interstate highways in metro Atlanta and on Georgia 400. Hundreds more were abandoned on local roads.
"The Georgia State Patrol can run their information and see whether or not it's been towed," she said. "Or they can drive out (with National Guardsmen) and try to find it."
As the temperature slowly creeped above freezing Thursday, people were being sent to one of two staging areas, depending on where they left their cars. Gas and jumps were available, Paulk-Buchanan said.
Kevin Andrews, 50, of Powder Springs arrived at one of those stations looking for his wife Vickie's 2012 Honda Civic. He said she left her car on a highway near the Six Flags amusement park Tuesday. She had left her job at 3:30 p.m. that day -- and was stuck in the car until 7 a.m. Wednesday, when her husband, marooned at work himself until 6 a.m. Wednesday, was able to rescue her, thanks to a co-worker's four-wheel-drive vehicle.
"She was frozen," Andrews said. Sitting in a full-stop gridlock, she was playing the radio and had gotten out of the car around midnight Tuesday to get a blanket from the trunk, Andrews said. She rolled down the back window to have something to hold onto as she fetched the blanket. When she got back in the car, the battery died before she could roll the window back up.
"It was pretty rough on her. She started crying for a second, and I told her to get a hold of herself," Andrews said. "She never lost (cell) phone service, and she was able to talk with me and a lot of her other friends.
"She had her Bible. So she wasn't mad. She was just cold."
Similar stories were playing out all over metro Atlanta.
Dulcy Longines left her 2005 Chevy Equinox about 5:30 a.m. Wednesday when her husband and son came to pick her up. She'd been sitting in the car since 2 p.m. on Tuesday, after an ordeal of trying various road alternatives to get home. On Thursday, a state trooper told her that her car wasn't in the system as having been towed, and that the National Guard would take her to look for it where she'd left it.
On Thursday, traffic was moving, albeit slowly in some cases, on most of metro Atlanta's major roads. There were exceptions: All northbound lanes of Interstate 75 were blocked for a time because of a jackknifed tractor-trailer.
But morning rush-hour traffic also was much lighter than normal: Most metro area schools canceled classes for the day, state government and many businesses were closed and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency was asking motorists to stay off the roads if possible.
As the roadways cleared, attention turned to how so little snow and ice could paralyze so large a city for so long.
Mayor Kasim Reed, who on Wednesday promised not to play the "blame game," appeared on NBC's Today show Thursday and was quick to point out that the jammed roads NBC showed on the telecast, and earlier this week, are not in the city of Atlanta. The city does not have jurisdiction for the interstates that run through Atlanta, Reed said.
He said he ordered all Atlanta streets pretreated by 9 a.m. Tuesday The storm hit after lunchtime. "If the cameras had focused on city limits, they would have seen that 80% were passable," Reed told host Matt Lauer.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal on Wednesday had blamed the National Weather Service, saying it "continually had modeling showing Atlanta would not be the primary area (of the storm). It would be south of Atlanta."
Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist with the University of Georgia and president of the American Meteorological Society, said neither meteorologists nor the forecast for the Atlanta area was to blame.
At 3:39 a.m. Tuesday, Marshall said the weather service issued a winter storm warning for the entire Atlanta metro area, expecting 1-2 inches of snow. "Overall, the Atlanta event was a well-forecasted and well-warned event," he said.
Reed told Lauer the failure to stagger the release of people from schools and businesses in Atlanta during a light snowstorm Tuesday played a primary role in creating a paralyzing traffic jam.
"We made an error in the way that we released our citizens,'' Reed said. "The state made a judgment to release state employees, private businesses made that judgment, and I made the call and APS (Atlanta Public Schools) made the call."
He added that the city is relatively inexperienced at dealing with snowstorms, "but the city of Atlanta invested $2.5 million in snow equipment and that is the reason that right now our streets are passable."
Following another bitterly cold morning, the thawing-out process was getting underway across the Deep South, temperatures were forecast to rise into the 40s in Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas, according to meteorologist Nick Wiltgen of the Weather channel.
He said that highs Thursday afternoon along the Gulf Coast should get to the low 50s, helping to put an end to the icy misery there.
But another chilly overnight -- with temperatures dropping below freezing -- is forecast across the region, which means a refreeze of untreated roads and bridges.
The real thaw will get underway Friday, as highs soar into the 50s and 60s in the South, the National Weather Service forecasts. With temperatures staying above freezing overnight Friday, the week of wintry misery could finally be ending.
Buckindail reports for WXIA-TV in Atlanta. Contributing: Doyle Rice, Gary Strauss, USA TODAY