Last Tuesday, a winter storm made its way to the Deep South and paralyzed cities like Atlanta and Birmingham for 30 hours. Atlanta found itself woefully underprepared when hundreds of businesses and school systems closed at nearly the same time. Motorists became stranded on crowded interstates as commutes ground to a halt. My own family experienced the harrowing “winter hell” — to use the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s term. My cousin had to spend the night in his truck in conditions so cold that the screen on his phone shattered, and my sister-in-law ventured out Wednesday morning to encounter other drivers stuck in a day’s worth of traffic.
There’s plenty of frustration all over Atlanta as a result of the storm. Abandoned cars sat for over a day, out of gas and left behind on highways and side streets alike. Students spent the night at schools when school systems chose not to allow buses out in the worsening conditions. City and state officials have played a sort of blame game (even as Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed whizzed past jammed motorists in the emergency lane en route to a Weather Channel interview), and citizens, members of the media, and officials at all levels of government struggle to figure out what went wrong. Some conspiracy nuts have mused that the government created a fake snowstorm to paralyze the South.
While the South revels in its frustrations with the storm and other areas of the country have some fun at our expense, Snowmageddon 2014 has given us some shining examples of the better side of human nature. Southerners cared for each other in the freezing cold, some of them in clever and ingenious ways.
Regular folks took advantage of their snow day to lend a hand to stranded motorists. My sister-in-law encountered a stranger passing out bottled water on Interstate 285 on the north side of Atlanta, while some friends of mine offered the warmth of their home to her. Kind citizens stocked up on groceries and headed out with free sandwiches and treats for stuck commuters, like two Samaritans who handed out hot chocolate on Interstate 75. One local hero rescued a pregnant woman northwest of the city, one of several people he helped out that day. Another man walked six miles in the snow so his five-year-old daughter wouldn’t have to spend the night at school without family.
Local businesses got in on the action as well, providing refuge to those left out in the cold. Retailers like Home Depot (where customers rested in lawn chairs), Kroger, Walmart, and CVS stayed open late, allowing snowstorm refugees shelter, even places to sleep. Convenience store chain Racetrac offered free coffee, cappuccino, and hot chocolate to motorists. One Chick-Fil-A franchise owner in Birmingham handed out hundreds of sandwiches to those stranded in the storm, providing much-needed hot meals.
Savvy metro Atlanta resident Michelle Sollicito took to social media to make a difference for those stuck in the snow. Sollicito created a Facebook group called SnowedOut Atlanta. Facebook users began using the page to submit requests for help and offers of assistance, and the group grew so quickly that Sollicito moved it to a page where users updated conditions in areas all over north Georgia. She even issued a disclaimer that the page would only tolerate requests directly related to the storms — thank you’s and rants about the storm could wait for another day.
I hope that years from now, when we look back on the winter storm that brought Atlanta to a standstill in January 2014, the political bickering and bureaucratic incompetence become a sideshow to the real story behind the storm. I hope people remember how Atlantans (and Birminghamians) banded together to help each other get through the hardships.