Weather forecasting in Atlanta, Georgia is tricky. Unlike say, Seattle, Washington (either rain, or sunshine) or Phoenix, Arizona (tomorrow will be hot and sunny), the weather systems in the area are variable and unpredictable. A raging rainstorm in one part of the area might coincide with a complete lack of rain elsewhere.
And in February of 2014, forecasters and employers were faced with a tough choice. A weather system with a point as sharp as a needle (in weather terms) was descending towards the Atlanta area. Whether that needle would stab into Atlanta itself was anyone's guess, a complete and total dice toss as to whether it would hit Atlanta or not. Wherever it was going to hit, it was going to have very localized effects, but it happening to Atlanta would be different than it happening to the bedroom community of Conyers or Villa Rica.
Atlanta gambled, and lost.
People went out to work that morning, as people in Atlanta are wont to do. The roads in from the suburbs of Alpharetta, Duluth, Decatur and elsewhere clogged the I-20, the I-85 and the I-75. It was typical rush hour that morning, with slowed traffic and the occasional stoppage for accidents.
And then the truly worst case happened.
By mid-day, ice and snow started to fall. The "needle" had stabbed directly into the heart of Atlanta, blanketing the entire loop and permieter in freezing temperatures and car-defeating ice. Panicked, people started home all at once, clogging every single highway and roadway.
And then, the full horror of the situation began to dawn. Traffic wasn't just bad, it was stopped. As the ice blanketed the roads, they became impassable, and any cars that could move skidded impotently where they were. Onramps and offramps, all of which by definition were sloped, became impossible to climb and stupidly suicidal to descend. Once you were on the highway, you stayed on the highway. And you very quickly couldn't move as any way on or off the highways became choked with disabled cars. The highways looked like a wintry version of The Walking Dead. Even if Atlanta had had salt trucks and ice removing equipment, there was no way for them to get on or get off the highway.
Cars idled for heat, because you can't really buy deep cold clothing in the deep south. People were sort of wrapped up, but depended on their car heaters to stay warm and alive. And one by one, by one by one, cars ran out of gas, now with 100% certainty blocking people in to where they were. Unable to get home. Unable to get to heat and shelter. Unable to get to their children. And with the loss of gas came a loss of heater, meaning that temperatures inside cars started to plummet, a life threatening condition.
With thousands of people stranded on highways with no heat, sub-freezing temperatures and dying sunlight, it was a recipe for mass deaths.
And yet, less than 10 people died in the storm, and those who did died by accident - ice-laden trees collapsing and crushing people inside a car or home, or slip-fall with head trauma. The same sort of accidents that claim lives day-in, day-out. There was no more or less loss of life that day than any other.
Because something positively miraculous happened that day in Atlanta.
People trapped in stores found that the managers of said stores not only kept them open, but went into inventory and broke out camp beds, sleeping bags, and food. On the store's dime, people were fed and kept warm and given comfortable places to sleep. Neighbors checked on neighbors and some trekked on foot to get required life saving medications to housebound and elderly sick folks. Who they stayed with in order to ensure they'd stay okay. People who called, in a blind panic to assure themselves that their children were fine were told "it's okay, we're making them dinner and they're watching TV. Get here when you get here, we're getting blankets and mattresses out as we speak. Everything will be fine."
Schools bedded kids down in gymnasiums. Day cares ignored the usual "you aren't here by six, you'll find your kid on the doorstep" rule. Chik-Fil-A and other restaurants not only stayed open, but broke into the next day's supplies and cooked food for a small army, trekking on foot to nearby schools and daycares and places where people gathered against the storm, keeping everyone fed.
People living by the side of the highways and alongside roads called out to people in stranded cars, begging them to come into their homes. White people camped out with black people, rich with poor, gay with straight. People who wouldn't normally mingle socially saved each others' lives. Tattooed thugs crashed in little old ladies' homes, teenage girls took refuge with houses full of men. And not a single report has come out since of people having their belongings stolen in the night, no murders, no rapes, no abuse of hospitality - either a stranded person waking up with someone trying to rape them, or people saying goodbye to an impromptu guest to find a wallet or some item of value missing.
In short, the entire city came together as one, a city with a long history of deeply divisive class and race problems. Banding together when the chips were down, they hung together. Like the city's emblem, a phoenix rising from the ashes, it showed its true colors as a place where concern for one's fellow man trumped every stereotype about the South. And nobody died as a result of being stranded, lacking food, or lacking medication.
The city marked the anniversary by telling stories. Some people spoke of and maintained the friendships they made during the storm, returning the favor with a Sunday meal and continuing friendship. Of course people being people, there were also some marriages, and several babies born nine months after the event. Stories abounded and were shared.
Regrettably, and to nobody's surprise, the usual pattern of crime and aggravations returned. Road rage and fights took place in the city as they always have. And divisions reappeared, with talk shows returning to the usual pattern of left wingers complaining about right wingers, medical marijuana proponents against conservatives, and so forth. But the city has never really forgotten what it learned in that horrifying day - that when the fecal matter truly hits the rotating air circulating device, Atlantans can be counted on to join hands and look after each other.