Tuesday started like any other day. I woke up at 5:30 AM and was on the road for my 42 mile commute just before 6. It was fairly cold, and I had dressed according. The National Weather Service had issued a Severe Winter Weather Watch for our area and a Severe Winter Weather Warning for areas South of Atlanta. When I checked things before I headed out on my commute, I noticed they had revised their forecasts to include snow further North including Atlanta. Around 11 AM I noticed light snow flakes falling outside my office window. At Noon, I went downstairs to the food court area for lunch and sat and watched it snow. It was cold enough that the snow was sticking on canopies on the outside face of the building and the wind was picking up. I remembered in 1986 when I had first moved to Atlanta from college that my coworkers told me about a winter storm that quickly moved into the Atlanta area shutting down roads leaving people stranded in their cars. I also remembered two years ago when the weather folks forecasted rain followed by freezing temperatures and snow. It did just that and shutdown the entire metro area because after the rain no one felt it important to spread salt or sand. So, the roads froze over with a solid thick sheet of ice and everything was closed for three straight days. I wondered how much snow we would get and how it would effect my commute. I was thankful that I was to get off at 3:30 PM instead of 5 like a lot of other people.
When I returned to my office, I noticed the traffic outside my window on 14th Street and Juniper Street was unusually heavy and slowly moving if at all. I walked over to the other side of our office and looked out at 14th Street as it leads to the on-ramp for I-75. It was bumper to bumper as far as the eye could see. I looked down Peachtree ST and the two North bound lanes were at a standstill. I hope the traffic dissipates before 3:30 PM, I thought. My co-workers started telling me about school closings around 1 PM. Soon after I received an email that the management office for our building was closing. My supervisor called and said she was trying to get permission to close our office by 2 PM. I thought it would not be helpful as all the streets around our building were choked with traffic. Where would we go? A couple co-workers left early to try to pick up their children from school as the schools had called to notify them they were closing.
(pictures taken at 1:28 PM, Tuesday January 28, 2013)
2 PM came and went without an office closing email. I walked back and looked out onto Peachtree ST. It was now jammed in both North and South directions. I went back to my office and pulled up Google maps to try to evaluate my options. Every major highway or Interstate that ran towards my home was solid red. I knew that it would be useless to try to travel on Peachtree ST, and I assumed I needed to avoid the intersection where GA 400 and I-285 crossed as it was always difficult on late afternoons, Fridays or Holidays and today would be worse. Google maps confirmed that for me. I continued to hope that all of the traffic that had begun the commute at 1 PM would begin to dissipate before I left. I considered some alternate routes in my head, but Google continued to show me that they were not viable alternatives.
At 2:45 PM, we were notified the office would close promptly at 3 PM. A quick glance out the window confirmed my worst fears. Traffic had not improved in two hours. I checked the exit from the parking deck and cars were lined up trying to get onto Peachtree, but no one was letting them out. When we were dismissed, I made my way to the parking deck and prepared for a long night. I have left at 4 PM and 5 PM before and those days had turned into 2 hour commutes. I guessed this might be more like 3 or even 4 hours. Instead of leaving the parking deck as I normally would via Peachtree ST., I headed down a level to the 14th ST. exit. As I exited the parking deck, I could see 14th was at a standstill going towards Peachtree, so I turned the other way and headed towards Piedmont. My original plan was to turn onto Peachtree Circle and re-intersect Peachtree ST several blocks further North to try and avoid some of the traffic. At a long redlight, I fired up Google Navigation on my Samsung S4 Android smartphone. I entered my home address and set options to avoid interstates and to select the fastest route considering traffic.
Piedmont was pretty congested as we crawled past Piedmont Park at 9 mph, but we were moving, and I found comfort in that fact. After a few miles, I noticed that Google was taking me a different route than I had considered in my head. I elected to stick with navigation as opposed to my own guesses. After all, the I had no idea on traffic. Within an hour I was merging onto GA 13 a route I often use. But navigation was telling me to merge onto I-85N. This sounded like a really bad idea to me. One, I-85 was really out of the way to me and Two, it was always slammed with traffic whenever I have been on it. But again, I yielded to navigation this time holding my breath expecting to find a parking lot. I was surprised to find traffic moving. At 25 mph, but again, at least it was moving. There was snow on both sides of the road but traffic was keeping a path mowed in each lane. Navigation showed it was going to have me exit in about 6 miles, so I settled in to stay in the two right lanes and prepare to exit the interstate in a few exits. Just a couple miles before the exit, navigation alerted that if had found a quicker route and asked if I would like to change routes. I clicked yes, and it instructed me to stay on the interstate for 20 miles. This really made me uncomfortable, but I decided to stick with it. As I merged onto I-985, I was surprised to find virtually no traffic at all. I cruised along at highway speed until the exit for GA 20. I noted the temperature was now around 24F and ice was forming at the base of my windshield. I knew this meant the road and bridges would be icing up.
GA 20 between Buford and Cumming has several bridges and stoplights at the top of hills. I figured this could be the highest probability of problems. I caught a red light at the top of the hill at Windermere. I was second car in light behind a Dodge Charger, and the left lane was open. I quickly thought the Charger was rear wheel drive and would probably have issues getting off the light. So, as I slowly approached the red light, I changed into the left lane. When the light turned green, I felt tire spin and the front of my front wheel drive danced a little. The traction control kicked on, I did a little counter steering to maintain my lane, and I was moving forward. When I had regained traction I looked in my mirror to see the Charger still trying to get moving and a line of traffic behind it. They would be losing this road in another hour I thought and there were several more hills ahead of me. I encountered a few more ice patches and continued to keep moving. I finally reached the intersection of GA 20 and GA 400. I elected to get onto 400 North as my wife had informed me she had come through there about 30 minutes earlier and 400 North was navigable. The ramp to 400 was icy and barely had detectable tire tracks, but I managed to maneuver onto 400. 400 Traffic was heavy and moving around 15 mph. As looked far ahead I could see two DOT trucks spreading sand and traffic slowly following. I reached our home and was grateful. I realized that another hour and most of the roads would be impassible. My 42 mile commute had taken just over 2 hours.
As I watched the news, read Facebook status updates, and texted co-workers, I began to learn that folks that had left work before me had gotten stuck behind wrecks and had not gotten home yet. One friend who left at 1 PM who lives near us ended up getting home at 7 PM after driving 400 from downtown all the way up. Another co-worker ended up 9 hrs to make a 30 mile commute. People were sleeping in cars. Folks were running out of gas and walking to gas stations, grocery stores, and even Home Depot for a warm place to find shelter. One friend of our daughter works for a Daycare center that sits on a hill. The parents could not get up the hill to pick up their children, so several employees spent the night with the children. Several schools could not get school buses to school and the children ended up sleeping in the gym. Some school buses got stuck on the iced roads and children ended up sleeping in the school bus overnight. So many schools closed at the same time and so many offices closed at the same time that millions of cars hit the roads, highways and interstates and overwhelmed the roadways. Before traffic could work itself out, the roads began to freeze, ice developed and vehicles spun out, wrecked, and became stuck. Salt and sand trucks could not treat the roads due to all the cars and the huge traffic jam.
By morning, there were cars abandoned on the sides of roads and highways all over the metro-area and some even abandoned in the middle of roadways. Probably the greatest thing that came of all of this mess was how social media engaged. Someone started a group on Facebook called "SnowedOutAtlanta". It amassed 55,655 members. The group was launched with this purpose "Post here details of who needs help and where. Also please post details of where people can get help from". People began posting where friends and family were stuck needing help. Others began posting offering room in their homes. People went out on four-wheel ATVs to carry people to gas stations. Others went out with sandwiches, bottles of water, and hot chocolate. The people of the metro Atlanta area took in complete strangers and provided them with food, dry clothing, and shelter.