- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - A winter storm dumped snow on parts of north Georgia and coated the metro Atlanta region. Much of Georgia was under a winter storm watch for Tuesday and Wednesday, with some areas forecast to see as much as 3 inches of snow.

People stocked up on ice-melting chemicals, school systems closed and road crews fought against heavy traffic to treat highways to stave off black ice accumulations.

Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency. Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the emergency declaration would free up resources the state can use to address emergency situations as they arise. State government offices were expected to be closed until noon Wednesday, Robinson said.

“I know many people are trying desperately to pick up their children or simply to get home, and I hope they can get to safe, warm stopping point soon,” Deal said in a statement. “Once at your destination, if at all possible, please stay off the roads until conditions improve.”

The threat of snow and ice prompted the closure of schools districts and government offices throughout the state, and stranded travelers at airports nationwide.

The airport hardest-hit by cancellations Tuesday was also the world’s busiest: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where more than 806 flights were canceled by 9 a.m. Tuesday, according to the flight tracking service FlightAware.

Nationwide, more than 3,200 flights within, into or out of the U.S. were canceled Tuesday, according to statistics from FlightAware. Only a couple of hundred flights are canceled in the U.S. on a typical day.

In Atlanta, Pam Sullivan, 46, bundled up in a thick pink scarf as she walked to work downtown. She took the impending winter storm in stride.

“Well, it’s wintertime,” she said. “So we get the cold days and the not-so-cold days.”

However, she expected the roads could be slippery if Atlanta received an inch or more of snow.

“You get one big mess with people colliding,” she said.

Interstates in the downtown Atlanta area were clogged Tuesday afternoon with drivers who ended their workdays early. Cars moved slowly, and some wrecks had already occurred. Cars were at a virtual standstill on surface streets downtown, packed with people fleeing the icy mess. Security guards and doormen at office buildings around downtown were coming outside - some without winter coats - to try to help direct clogged traffic.

Georgia Department of Transportation officials said that crews were working to clear snow and ice accumulations on interstates in the metro Atlanta, middle Georgia and northwest Georgia areas.

“We are doing all we can to manage the worsening highway conditions,” GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said in a statement. “That effort is complicated in some areas by the heavy traffic of individuals trying to get home and the very large number of roadways experiencing issues.”

Transportation officials said they expected road conditions to worsen later in the day and to become spread over a larger area of the state. Officials urged Georgians to avoid any unnecessary driving - especially traveling after dark - until Wednesday and to exercise extreme caution.

The only roads that were officially closed by the state were the State Route 180 Spur in Towns County and a portion of State Route 348 in While County, Dale said.

Law enforcement officials said authorities were responding to hundreds of accidents throughout the state. Although it wasn’t immediately clear how many of the crashes were weather related, officials said many of them likely could be linked to snow and icy conditions.

Georgia State Patrol troopers responded to more than 500 crashes throughout the state between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Tuesday, patrol spokesman Gordy Wright said. As of that time, 65 injuries and no fatalities had been reported. Crashes appear to have been concentrated in northwest Georgia, west Georgia and the metro Atlanta area.

Atlanta police responded to more than 285 crashes since 1:30 p.m., when snow began coating the city, according to department spokesman John Chafee.

People heading to work and class bundled up in the freezing weather. Chris Tran, a 22-year-old chemistry student, rode his bike to class at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. He was locking it to a rack dressed in two pairs of spandex pants and two spandex tops. He expects that he will be biking home through the snow - something that he’s never done in Georgia.

“I think I’ll have to,” he said. “And if it gets too bad, I’ll just ride MARTA.”

Organizers were planning a large school-choice rally outside Georgia’s Statehouse on Tuesday. They hoped around 1,000 people or more would attend, though it was unclear whether the approaching storm would make it difficult for students and other supporters to travel.

Michael Schulte, 23, was warming his hands outdoors as workers set up for the rally. He wore long johns under his jeans and multiple shirts to keep warm. He was looking forward to going inside the capitol and warming up.

“Right now I’m just hunkering down,” he said.

While some hunkered down, others used the rare winter storm as an excuse to play.

The weather shut down Stone Mountain Park east of Atlanta - which ironically charges paying guests for a chance to go sledding and tubing on artificial snow.

But there was plenty of the real deal elsewhere. About 50 teens, children and adults sledded down two hills - and in some cases, between gravestones - at a historic cemetery in downtown Decatur. Those without sleds used plastic trashcan lids. One teen even fashioned a makeshift snowboard by unbolting the wheels on a skateboard.

During an ice storm three years ago, hardly anyone who came to the cemetery had sleds, said Nancy Green, who brought her 9-year-old and 6-year-old on Tuesday. Local stores did brisk business in sleds after that storm, though must probably gathered dust until this week.

“We haven’t been able to use them since,” she said.

A short drive away, Brian Cayce brought his 7-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl to go sledding at a park behind an elementary school. They used the wooden lip of a retaining wall as a small jump.

“We’re going to sled the rest of the day and into the night for sure,” Cayce said, noting it was a rare chance for his children to try it out. “You buy them for the one or two occasions a year you get to use them.”

At an Ace Hardware store in the north Georgia town of Cumming, snow shovels were in short supply, but manager Tom Maron said feed scoops - often used in barns - could be substituted.

“We’re fixing to put the ice melt out, and we’ve got plenty of sand here to mix in,” Maron said shortly before dawn.

At the Okefenokee Swamp in far south Georgia, the alligators were slowing down and burrowing into mud to stay warm, a park ranger said early Tuesday.

“Their metabolism slows down so they’re able to not breathe as often, so they don’t have to come to the surface as often,” said Susan Heisey, a supervisory ranger at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

“They make burrows in the canal banks, sort of stay in the mud and just sort of have their nose tipped up to the surface of- the water so they can still breathe and move minimally,” Heisey said. “These alligators have been on this earth a long time and they’ve made it through.”

Other species of wildlife - such as gopher tortoises, snakes and frogs - were riding out the storm in underground tunnels, she said.

“They burrow underground and make these tunnels which can be quite long,” Heisey said. “Snakes and frogs will go into these tunnels along with the Gopher tortoises.”

Associated Press writer Phillip Lucas contributed to this report.


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