How a Minor Snow Storm in the South Led to So Many People Sleeping in Pharmacies and Grocery Stores

A traffic nightmare with major repercussions.


Around 7 a.m. this morning, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed tweeted this encouragement to his city's residents in the aftermath of a surprisingly devastating snowfall of no more than 3 inches:

Note – if you live nowhere near Atlanta, or far north of it – that Reed wasn't talking here about clearing roads for the morning commute, enabling workers to get to the office or children to get to school. That's the typical drill in regions more accustomed to snow. We measure the impact of winter weather – and a city's competence in responding to it – by how quickly we can all get back to work.

In Atlanta, however, at 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning (well after the snowfall had stopped), Reed was talking about people still needing to get home.

Throughout the region, from north Florida to as far west as Louisiana, thousands of Southerners slept last night (or tried to) in grocery stores and pharmacies and at least one Home Depot. Children slept at school. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama had hundreds of people camped out in their offices. Firefighters in Birmingham rescued motorists from Interstate 65 and took them to a local hotel – where, for some reason, they slept in a conference room.

Today, while all these people try to finally get home again, this seems like the most baffling part of this story. Icy gridlock is inevitable in cities where it simply doesn't make financial sense to invest in a massive snow plow fleet. We expect stranded cars and long commutes (although Atlanta can't claim to be too caught off guard after a similar episode in 2011).

But this?

Some of these stories are endearing: This guy let 10 strangers sleep in his home in Atlanta (and they look like they were having a pretty good time). And this guy made a bunch of bagged lunches to bring to stranded motorists.

Many of these people wound up passing the night at a grocery store or a stranger's home because the alternative was spending it on the highway, stuck in traffic that was barely moving, if at all. And people who didn't leave work soon enough – or schools that may not have sent children home early enough – quickly got stuck where they were. In Atlanta, schools didn't dismiss classes until after the snow started falling.

In the Northeast and Midwest, we regularly drive through this window: the first few hours of flurries. The great advantage of having snow plows (and salt trucks) is not just that they help clean up once a storm has passed, but also that they give us time to head home once it's already begun. If you don't have plenty of this equipment poised to hit streets before the first snowfall, chaos can set in immediately. That means that a region that isn't prepared ahead of time doesn't get much of a grace period to make up for that mistake.

Mark Byrnes and Mike Riggs contributed to this story.

Top Image of people resting in the aisle of a Publix grocery store in Atlanta: Tami Chappell/Reuters.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.