ATLANTA — Police and the National Guard helped people reunite with their abandoned cars Thursday as the logjam on Atlanta highways eased and the roads thawed, two days after a winter storm hit the Deep South.
The cleanup could take all day. At the peak of the storm, thousands of cars littered the interstates in Georgia and in Alabama. Some people ran out of gas, some were involved in accidents and others simply left their car on the side of the road so they could walk home or to someplace warm. Across much of the South, the sun was out, temperatures were rising and snow was beginning to melt.
About 1,600 students in Alabama who spent two nights at schools were finally home, and all of the state’s highways were reopened. Still, officials warned drivers to be extremely cautious and to be on the lookout for icy patches. Schools and government offices were still closed in several states.
At least eight people died from traffic accidents and six people were killed in fires blamed on space heaters. The latest was in Savannah, where two children were killed early Thursday as temperatures hovered below freezing. In the Midwest, an 86-year-old woman died of hypothermia outside her suburban Chicago home.
Savannah Fire and Emergency Services spokesman Mark Keller said all evidence indicated an electric space heater caused the fire.
North Carolina still faced icy conditions, with dangerous roads in much of the state as bone-chilling temperatures overnight refroze any snow that had melted.
Still, there is much cleanup to do. The Georgia State Patrol said more than 2,000 cars were abandoned along the freeways.
Crystal Paulk-Buchanan, a spokeswoman with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said it was critical vehicles were removed from highways Thursday because the emergency shoulders would be needed when normal traffic returns Friday.
“We ask that all motorists be extremely cautious as they’re driving today and give these abandoned cars room so that folks who may be trying to get their car back, that they are able to do that safely,” she said.
Overall, the Georgia State Patrol responded to more than 1,460 crashes between Tuesday morning and Wednesday evening, including two fatal crashes, and reported more than 175 injuries.
State transportation crews spent much of Wednesday rescuing stranded drivers and moving disabled and abandoned vehicles that littered the interstates, medians and shoulders.
Members of Georgia’s National Guard set up at a church Thursday and offered to drive motorists in Humvees and heavy trucks to get their vehicles. Authorities at the makeshift command center could also tell people if their vehicles had been towed; state officials had said a database would be set up for tracking.
“It is very surprising to see how many vehicles are still abandoned along the side of the road,” Sgt. 1st Class Archer Ford said.
At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, more than 400 flights in and out were canceled by 6 a.m. Thursday, according to data from the flight tracking service FlightAware. Many of those flights were canceled before the day began.
Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed found themselves on the defensive, acknowledging that storm preparations could have been better. But Deal also blamed federal forecasters, saying he was led to believe it wouldn’t be so bad.
However, the National Weather Service explicitly cautioned on Monday that snow-covered roads “will make travel difficult or impossible.” The agency issued a winter storm warning for metro Atlanta early Tuesday and cautioned against driving.
Deal, who is up for re-election in November, said warnings could have been posted along highways earlier, but he also fended off criticism.
“We don’t want to be accused of crying wolf. Because if we had been wrong, y’all would have all been in here saying, `Do you know how many millions of dollars you cost the economies of the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia by shutting down businesses all over this city and this state?”‘ Deal told reporters.
Speaking on NBC’s “Today” show Thursday morning, Reed said many of the news photos and videos showing freeways littered with abandoned cars were not in the city but in the surrounding region. Reed noted that the city doesn’t have jurisdiction of those freeways and said most streets in Atlanta itself were now passable.
The Atlanta area was crippled by an ice storm in 2011, and officials had vowed not to be caught unprepared again. But in this case, few closings or other measures were ordered ahead of time.