Yes, I did get stuck in the massive traffic jam that shut down Atlanta on January 28, 2014. It was a nightmare come true, but I was more fortunate than most- even though it ranks as one of my worst experiences ever.
I had an appointment at 11 a.m. about 35 miles from my house, which normally takes me 45 minutes each way, at mid-day. The weather forecast had said the worst snow would be south of Atlanta, and to expect flurries and possibly an inch on the north end, where I would be. It wasn’t expected to start until afternoon, so I calculated I could make it back before the bad weather hit.
I have never been more wrong.
At 12:15, I left my appointment and made it to the freeway on ramp. It had just started to snow, but was coming down quickly and already beginning to stick. I got into the line of traffic which was moving steady, around 35-40 miles per hour. I had called my husband to let him know I was on my way.
After a few miles, we began to slow down to 15- 20 miles per hour. Every on ramp was lined with cars and trucks, and the snow was becoming wetter and intensifying. My car thermometer read 23 degrees when I got in my car, and now it was down to 20. I had a sinking feeling this was going to get worse.
I have never been more correct!
About an hour in, we were crawling at 2-5 miles per hour. It was a big thrill each time I passed another exit, conquering the miles between where I was and where I wanted to be. Then it was stop and go, with five to ten minutes of stopping followed by a few feet of driving.
The road had become icy under my wheels, and even creeping along at 2 miles per hour, the car wanted to slide out of control. I know not to slam on my brakes and I managed to ease back to my lane without incident. But vehicles all around me were swerving, and we had to make our way around several that had spun out. You could no longer see the lanes, and a white-out blizzard obstructed the view up ahead. What the hell? Flurries, they said! Not a freaking blizzard!
Three hours in and I was beginning to rant and yell at the other cars, though no one could hear me. “Move!! Just keep moving!!” By this time my bladder had begun to torture me, and I had no idea how far the next exit was. I had skipped lunch so hunger was also a factor in unravelling my nerves. When we were moving, I had to grip the steering wheel tightly in order to keep control of my car. All of that and the uncertainty of how this was going to end only increased my anxiety.
Four hours in and I could take no more. I pulled over, to the shoulder, put my blinkers on, locked the car and tromped fifty yards through the snow to relieve myself behind some bushes. The relief was pure bliss. I was able to think much more clearly without the distraction of my bladder nearly exploding.
By five and a half hours, I was close to another exit and still about fifteen miles from home. I did the math and figured it may be after midnight at this rate before I get to my exit; it was getting dark, I was thirsty, hungry and tired. I knew I had to stop and figure out what to do.
As I turned onto the surface street at the end of the ramp, all I could see were red lights- the tail lights of vehicles not moving. Lights were green but nothing moved. It took a half hour to get to a gas station a block away, but I made it. Some roller food, coffee, and water, and I was feeling human again.
I sat in my car in the parking lot, wondering what the hell to do. The sky was dark now and I was certain that getting back on the freeway meant I might be stuck there all night, or get hit by (or slide into) another car and have to deal with an accident. There were very few police cars, or city vehicles, and I had not seen one DOT truck all day. We were all dealing with this on our own! Every conversation I heard in the gas station was centered on how many hours it had taken everyone to get there.
Was I going to have to sleep in my car? The temperature had already dropped to 18 degrees, and would be much lower than that by morning. I spoke to another woman alone parked nearby, and we agreed to watch out for each other. I told her I had seen a motel sign a block away, and we decided to see if they had any rooms.
A half hour later we made to the hotel. They were full but welcomed us to sit in the lobby. Thirty or so others were camped out there, and they gladly shared their food and beverages with us. We were safe, warm and dry. It seemed like heaven at that moment.
Sleeping in a chair all night would have been no big deal, but at 11 p.m. the hotel manager said she had a cancellation and we could share a room. So my new friend and I split the cost, and we each had our own bed. I was so grateful, after contemplating sleeping in the gas station!
My husband was keeping in touch with me, and all reports on the news were of freeways and roads shut down, accidents everywhere, and people abandoning their cars. We knew he could not come out and “rescue” me- no sense both of us getting stuck. It had taken him an hour and a half to go five miles to our house from work.
I could barely keep up with the texts, tweets, Facebook messages and phone calls I had from friends and family checking up on me. I had forgotten my charger and was afraid of my phone dying. I cannot help wondering how this would have been if we did not all have cell phones? The Facebook Group SnowedOutAtlanta, organized by Michelle Sollicito, was genius. Why doesn’t the city have a site or group like this for emergencies? People posted who needed help, who was able to help, where they were. It got the word out of what was needed and what was available. Within a few hours it was up to nearly 50K subscribers!
I was stunned and immensely pleased to hear of all the real-life heroes who walked to the road in the snow, handing out food, water, blankets, jumping dead batteries, and much more. Strangers taking strangers into their homes, providing food and warmth. Businesses staying open to provide shelter and food. What was truly a nightmare situation was made bearable for many by the kindness of others.
It was wonderful to hear of so much goodness, unselfishness, people helping people regardless of age, race, political affiliation, etc. The news lately is filled with the horrible things humanity can do- terrorism, mass shootings, bullying and even down to rude behavior. If we could only keep that sense of community and willingness to help beyond emergencies, what we could achieve!
The next morning, the news was full of warnings that the roads would remain icy as frigid temperatures continued. The parking lot of the hotel was slushy, as the ice had melted a bit. But I was unable to get any true information on how the road was going home. Several other ladies at the hotel who were traveling alone were reluctant as I was to get on the freeway and get stuck.
About noon, my husband called and announced, “I am coming to get you.” He’d had enough waiting around, and being from New Jersey, he wasn’t afraid of “a little ice”. The tone in his voice told me there was no way of talking him out of it, and he was already on the road.
My very own Hero rode up on his white horse (okay, it’s a white pickup truck) and rescued me! I followed him in my car and we made it, though there were patches of ice. Cars and trucks littered the sides of the road, making for a surreal sci-fi post-apocalyptic scene. The poster of the Walking Dead and abandoned cars was all over the internet and it could not be more fitting.
Pulling up to my house was the best feeling in the world. You really treasure your home when you cannot get to it. I marveled at how blessed I am, and how there are so many heroes out there. We just don’t recognize them as such until we need them.