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Thousands still stranded on Atlanta highways after snow catches South unprepared

John Bazemore / AP

A man stands on the frozen roadway as he waits Wednesday for traffic to clear along Interstate 75 in Macon, Ga.

Thousands of drivers were hopelessly stuck for a second day Wednesday, many without food and water, on paralyzed interstates around Atlanta after a winter storm appeared to take the city by surprise.

State and local authorities had no estimate for how many people were stuck, but they said jackknifed 18-wheelers were causing a problem on freeways that were still slick with ice. Some people abandoned their cars altogether and walked to warmth and shelter.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal ordered the National Guard to clear the way for school buses that were carefully delivering schoolchildren back to their homes after thousands of them were marooned overnight. All of them were "home safe and sound" by late Wednesday afternoon, Deal said.

After snowfall and ice paralyzed Atlanta, some were left wondering whether the city is destined to quit functioning when bad weather strikes again. NBC's Gabe Gutierrez reports.

But National Guard troops were still distributing blankets and 200 cases of military-style MREs, or meals ready to eat, to drivers along Interstate 20.

Churches, groceries and hardware superstores opened their doors to the stranded. Neighbors took in neighbors and strangers. At least one baby was born in a car, helped by a police officer.

Aerial pictures made the highways look like parking lots, and there was no indication of when or how the roads would be cleared. Twenty hours into the jam, one trucker, Joe Schmitz, told NBC News that drivers would probably be stuck for a second night.

"There are some people who are really kind of scared," he said. He added that truckers were taking drivers into their rigs to keep them warm as cars ran out of gas.

Authorities found themselves defending, and in some cases apologizing for, a slow response.

NBC's Al Roker says there was plenty of time to make adjustments for snow removal in Atlanta.

It wasn't close to the worst storm in Atlanta's history — only about 2½ inches of snow fell — but authorities said hundreds of thousands of people all at once tried to head home from work or school Tuesday afternoon, jamming the roads.

Deal said that state workers were ordered home on Tuesday afternoon but that he had had no control over what private businesses and schools decided to do.

"It's like someone blew a whistle and everyone left at the same time," he said.

Read stories from the gridlock

Deal apologized but added: "It's easy to make judgment calls after the fact, but I daresay there's not anybody in this room that could have predicted the degree and the magnitude of the problem that developed."

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said there had been no deaths on the Atlanta roads. He grew testy with reporters who asked him to grade the city's response and pointed out that the interstates were the responsibility of the state government, not the city.

Jennifer Wilkins was stranded in her car for more than 20 hours because of the snow and ice accumulating in the South. She tells NBC's Andrea Mitchell about it.

"I'm not going to do this with you today," he told one reporter. He told another: "With all due respect, your question ignores the facts."

"I've never seen anything like this," Tim Dougherty said from Interstate 285, north of the city, where he was stranded for more than a full day before he finally made it home late Wednesday afternoon.

"What took me 30 minutes yesterday morning took me 26 hours to get back," Dougherty told NBC News. Earlier, as he sat in a sea of taillights, he said, "I've got to say for a city this is an epic failure."

The baby born during the gridlock was a little girl, delivered by her father and a police officer on I-285. Paramedics got the family to a hospital.

"I pulled over to check on them, and I asked the dad, 'Are y'all broke down?'" the officer, Tim Sheffield of the Sandy Springs police, told TODAY. "He goes, 'No, we're having a baby.'"

Most of the storm's worst had passed by Wednesday morning, but a winter storm warning was still in effect from the Florida Panhandle to Ocean City, Md., and a hard-freeze warning stretched from Texas through Alabama.

Any ice that melted was refreezing Wednesday, meaning conditions "will be just as bad as yesterday in terms of the state of the roads," said Guy Walton, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel.

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Icy bridges forced state troopers to close traffic down to one lane in Alabama, forcing hundreds of drivers to abandon their cars or endure sub-freezing temperatures. Jon Paepcke of NBC station WVTM of Birmingham reports.

Authorities in Alabama were also left red-faced after declaring a state of emergency only for the southern half of the state, leaving out hard-hit Birmingham and sending available equipment the other way.

All interstates and numbered roads were still rated "impassable" in Birmingham and surrounding Jefferson County on Wednesday morning, with thousands of drivers having been stranded for hours.

"No one knew exactly where the line of freezing rain and snow would take place," Gov. Robert Bentley said Wednesday. "Unfortunately, the predictions were not exactly what we thought they would be. No one has any control over that except the Lord."

State officials did have some good news: At 9:30 p.m. ET, the state Education Department said all 11,000 students who'd been stranded at school overnight were safely home.

But not all of the misery was on the roads: More than 4,000 flights were delayed across the U.S. by Wednesday evening, with almost 2,300 others canceled, according to FlightAware.

M. Alex Johnson, Jim Miklaszewski, Courtney Kube, Gina Gentilesco and Polly DeFrank of NBC News contributed to this report.

A traffic map of Atlanta ... at midnight Tuesday.


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