Atlanta – 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 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 of snow in Durham and Greensboro.
The storm turned the morning rush hour treacherous, though many people heeded warnings to stay off the roads.
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.
By midday, skies were bright and sunny in many places, but temperatures were expected to remain below freezing throughout the day in much of the region, and roads are likely to remain icy into Thursday.
“People keep asking when we will get the all-clear,” said Georgia Transportation Department spokeswoman Natalie Dale. “It will not happen today.”
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 to record highs as people struggled to keep warm.
In Alabama, where some places got at least 3 inches 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.
“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 before dawn in New Orleans, breaking the city’s record of 23 , set on the same date in 1977.
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. Dozens of accidents were reported across the metropolitan area.
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