How I survived Atlanta’s traumatic snow debacle


Jan. 28 started with a breakfast meeting at Highland Bakery.  I enjoyed turkey sausage and a hot cocoa and then chastised myself for taking too many bites of my seasoned hash browns over a delightful conversation with a sister, friend and colleague. I left breakfast and called one of my girlfriends who questioned my next destination of my office because a snowstorm was on its way to Atlanta.  I chuckled at the gravity in her voice and reminded her that as a former (Ohio State) Buckeye, I wasn’t afraid of a little snow.

I got to the office and immediately corralled my small business staff of three to the conference room for a staff meeting going over client projects. My iPhone buzzed letting me know that my son’s school would end at 3 p.m. instead of 3:45 p.m. so I decided to go and pick him up instead of letting him ride the school bus.

Glances from my staff at the light snow beginning to descend encouraged me to release them for the day. I know that while I am from the north, the girls are not used to driving in inclement weather and I didn’t want them to panic.  I left the office a few minutes after 1 p.m. and headed to my usual 35 minute journey from the Boulevard exit in Atlanta to the 85 exit that takes me to Fayetteville, Ga.  Little did I know that journey would turn into a nightmare that neither I nor many Atlantans would ever forget.

My office is less than a minute from the exit so I turned the radio on and jumped on the exit. Once I turned the corner I noticed the ramp leading to the highway was beyond backed up. Assuming there had been an accident, I decided to back out and take another exit that would lead me to highway 75. I turned the radio on and learned that most schools and city jobs had been released for the day. Again, I shook my head thinking how funny it was that southerners really were afraid of a little snow. It didn’t take long for me to realize that downtown was a bumper-to-bumper mayhem of panicked drivers and a steady fall of snow.

A friend of mine called letting me know he had been released from work early and was excited to get home early to relax. I told him that I was having trouble getting to an exit and was becoming a bit concerned. There is no way to get from downtown Atlanta to my southern suburb without taking one of the main highways. I asked him if he knew of any back roads and he told me no. I realized I’d been attempting to get on the highway for over an hour and half.  He told me that the highways were blocked and traffic was getting even worse.

I remember feeling the first stab of fear at not being able to get home in time to get my son from school. An hour later, I still hadn’t gotten on the highway and hadn’t moved anywhere near closer to being on the ramp towards home. By this time, the snow was falling more consistently and reports via the radio had sent my “Mommy Alert” on high.  I called the school to make sure my son had gotten on the school bus. After realizing he had, I tried to figure out what I could do to get home. I called my friend back and he told me that the weather reports were getting worse and he was sliding all over the road.

Again, I recall feeling a fleeting stab of fear but only because I was concerned about my son’s safety. Once I was assured for the second time that my son was on the bus headed home, I decided I should perhaps try to get a hotel downtown and spend the night there and wait the storm over.  I called the Marriott that was right in front of me to inquire about pricing and was told they were booked. Not only was the Marriott booked, but every hotel in the midtown area was booked.

I decided there was no option. I’d have to brave the weather and head home. I called my staff to make sure the three of them were getting home without issue. I felt guilty for having them come into work on a day that could result in them having an accident trying to get home. One of them was home, but the other two were still travelling. I asked them both to check in with me as soon as they got home and made a mental note to check the weather more thoroughly especially when dealing with young employees.

After three and a half hours, I finally got onto highway 75/85 but was discouraged seeing that traffic still wasn’t moving. You could sense the panic in the drivers on the road as brake lights blared for miles and miles ahead.  My friend agreed to stay on the phone with me concerned about me getting home in the storm.  My employees called me and let me know finally they’d made it home.  I breathed a sigh of relief and felt the burden lifted from my shoulders.  After hearing from my son that he’d made it home, I actually began to feel relief. I knew it would only be a short while before this traffic would have to clear and I’d be home. Although I’d been on the road for four hours attempting to conquer a 35 minute drive, I still envisioned myself getting there shortly.

Five hours in, I realized the usual way I traveled home wasn’t going to work. I decided to take an alternative route. My friend suggested I meet him midway so he could help me get home. I agreed to meet him up the road from his job. I got off 85 onto Langford Parkway and congratulated myself. Traffic seemed to be moving more consistently than on the main road.

I thought I had outsmarted traffic. I was going about 15 miles an hour but at least we were moving. Then, we weren’t.  Traffic came to a complete stop about two miles from the exit. I began getting irritated and frustrated because it seemed unreasonable that traffic could not move for hours at a time. One hour went by and then two. People started getting out of their cars and walking. All of us looking up the road to see what was causing the issue. Numerous friends called asking if I was home safe. I let them know I wasn’t but that I had a full tank of gas and I was sure I’d be there soon.

By 8 p.m., it was cold, dark and I was beginning to get scared. I didn’t realize the other highways were just as jammed with traffic. I thought I’d made a terrible mistake and chosen the wrong highway. Although I was safe in my car, I was aware that not once did I hear a police siren or see a salt truck. I was also aware that the snow and ice that had been falling silently during daylight had now frozen over to a solid sheet of ice under my truck.  People in cars around me were yelling, gesturing and leaving their cars. I made sure I had my phone charged in and tried to think positively.  My resolve was becoming harder and harder by the hour. I was hungry, didn’t want to use all of my gas so I was going back and forth turning my car on and off and I needed to use the restroom.  I asked a driver next to me how far the exit was ahead and was told 2.5 miles. I didn’t think I could make it that far to a bathroom. I felt helpless. There wasn’t anything anyone could do to help me because the highway was blocked totally. My friend told me the highway I was on was totally shut down. How can it be shut down when it’s full of people here? There are miles and miles of cars filled with people and there is no help for us?

Just after 10 p.m., I felt my resolve weakening. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and my bladder was on fire. I gave in and looked for a way to relieve my bladder and found an old smoothie bottle from the day before. I climbed into my backseat and relieved myself then threw the bottle out and cleaned myself the best I could. I was in shock that I’d had to stoop to such a level and feeling a bit stir crazy.

Traffic on the other side of the highway was cleared and still no police, salt trucks or emergency rescue vehicles were in sight. Strangers were constantly passing between the cars and while I wanted to ask people what was going on, but remembering I was a female in a car with her purse, laptop and no handgun reminded me to be careful approaching random strangers.  I checked on my son every hour until I decided I didn’t want to worry him. I told him I probably wouldn’t be home that night and not to wait up. He insisted he was going to wait up for me no matter how late.

Midnight came and went and still there was no movement on Langford Parkway. I had begun to make peace with the idea of spending the night there on the highway, although I was afraid to fall asleep. I noticed there were voices all around me, men walking and pointing towards the exit. A few cars in front of me started their engines and a fleeting hope jumped into my chest. Had help finally come? I rolled down my window and asked an older man what was going on. He told me that he and some of the other men got together and walked the 2.5 miles to the exit to get as much salt as they could and were determined to get people out of this mess. He told me there was no accident ahead, just horrible roads. But they were hopeful that they could get some of us out of there.

I watched as these men from different backgrounds took these little bags of salt and pushed and pushed on various cars. They walked up and down the road telling drivers to move over to the shoulder if their cars weren’t stuck and they would try to help them at least get past this point. After an hour of this, it was my turn. I’d watched numerous cars try and fail. They’d slide across the ice and get stuck, get un-stuck and then re-stuck, over and over again. So many cars had begun running out of gas.

It was hard to tell if someone was in front of you trying to move or if they were out of gas, or just asleep.  Your car has been performing well, you can do this one of the guys assured me. Come on, we got you, when I tell you to go, I want you to follow this car in front of you and don’t stop, ok?  Come on mama, you can do this.  I was petrified but the stranger’s words encouraged me.  He gave the signal and I pushed down on the gas. The truck in front of me I was following slid across the ice and slammed into the guard rail. I screamed and tensed up. I didn’t want that to happen to my car. “Go, go” the men yelled. I began praying out loud and continued moving forward. I could feel my car sliding and then regaining balance. Go with the slide, don’t turn the wheel against the slide. I kept going. Two cars in front of me slid into each other. I had to navigate my car on the shoulder around them, but I kept going. It was almost 1 a.m., but I was moving.

Finally, I transitioned from Langford Parkway to Campbellton Road. I was six miles from my destination. I called my friend to let him know I was headed toward the CVS. He told me people had camped out in the store under blankets and were directing others there. He encouraged me to just keep coming no matter what. My car slid several times badly but never got stuck. Instead of waiting patiently when I ran into traffic, I took the shoulders and even drove in the wrong lane, determined to get off of this road and out of this nightmare.

Finally, I saw police officers and fire trucks as I got closer. Instead of offering help, they yelled at those of us travelling on the wrong side of the road and told us to get back in line. I obliged until they left and then continued travelling. I knew I had to get off the road. Many times I ran across cars in the middle of the road that were abandoned, some had hazards lights on, some did not. It took me two and a half hours to get six miles up the road to the CVS.  The last hour was the roughest.  My car spun out of control twice and I had to get my nerves together to get back on the road. I thanked God for keeping me safe and asked for his guidance in getting to CVS.

Finally, I arrived and strangely I didn’t know what to do first. Although I was shocked at how many people were in the cold, dark store camped out with their coats over their heads and children tucked next to them, I was too mentally exhausted to do anything besides go to the bathroom, eat a snickers bar and lay down. My friend and I took some toilet paper rolls and stuffed animals off the shelf and made a pallet with a stuffed animal for a pillow. We got a space heater off the shelf, aimed it between us and went to sleep.

I woke up at 8 a.m. and forgot where I was for a moment. There were mothers with children wiping their faces and herding them towards the bathrooms. I wanted to go home as soon as possible, but my friend told me that the mayor wanted everyone off the streets. He explained the roads were still bad and there was no way I’d make it to my house which was almost 30 minutes away.  We agreed to go to his house once the sun had come out and melted the snow a bit more.  There were tales of accidents, semi’s jackknifing and trailer trucks overturned all around us. By 10:30 a.m. that morning, we got in my car and started towards his house which was less than five minutes away during a normal drive.  His car was almost out of gas after the long ordeal and he was afraid to take a chance of it running out of gas.

Hundreds of cars littered either side of the road. Some parked neatly, others painfully positioned after careening out of control.  Every time the car slid, panic gripped my heart. I couldn’t bear being stranded again. An hour and a half later, we pulled into his driveway and turned on the television. I was shocked to learn that the entire city of Atlanta had similar experiences to me. Hungry, tired, dirty and mentally exhausted I took a shower and went to sleep. It would be the following afternoon before I would get back home to my house and my son.

I am not sure who is to blame for what happened on Jan. 28. While the city of Atlanta undoubtedly holds some responsibility, I do recognize that sleet and snow falling at such a rapid pace has the ability to compromise the safety of a community. What I also know is that my faith in God helped me to evade harm that night and I know I was blessed to have made it through that without harm to my son, myself or my car. Lastly I was deeply touched by the kindness of nameless strangers that came together for the good of each other in the bitter cold, with nothing to gain but helping one another.  It was a beautiful display of humanity and a reminder that there are some good people in this world if you will just open your eyes to see them.

-Christal D. Jordan

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