January 29, 2014 / 3:00 PM / 5 years ago

Rare winter storm grips U.S. South, kills at least 5 people

AUSTIN, Texas, Jan 29 (Reuters) - A rare winter storm gripped the U.S. South on Wednesday, killing five people, stranding children overnight at their schools, gnarling traffic across many states and canceling flights at the world’s busiest airport.

At least five deaths in Alabama were blamed on the icy storm that slammed the region from Texas through Georgia and the Carolinas.

Forecasters predicted little relief from the ice on Wednesday, with temperatures unlikely to rise much above freezing for long enough to thaw roads and bridges, before freezing again early Thursday across the Southeast.

“We are all in this together and we will get through it together,” read a statement from police in Anniston, Alabama. “What was to be a simple dusting (of snow) has turned into something more. None of us were prepared.”

Airlines canceled thousands of flights from Houston to Atlanta, with some 500 alone halted early Wednesday at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest airport.

The wintry mix of snow, sleet and ice had moved further to the southeast Wednesday, to southeast Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, according to forecasters at The Weather Channel.

In Virginia, up to 10 inches of snow fell overnight in some parts of the state, said meteorologists at Accuweather.com. Two inches of sleet pelted North Carolina by Wednesday morning.

Sections of major roadways remained closed in Louisiana near New Orleans, including the 24-mile Causeway Bridge spanning Lake Pontchartrain.

Authorities rescued about 50 schoolchildren in Atlanta, whose buses were stranded overnight on an icy roadway, district officials said.

Hundreds of other students remained sheltered in schools and other locations, their parents unable to reach them after being stuck in an epic traffic snarl that continued for more than 12 hours along the I-75 highway and nearby roadways.

At E. Rivers Elementary School in Atlanta, 95 students were stranded and stayed overnight on Tuesday, Principal Matt Rogers told Reuters.

“We’re feeding them, we’re watching movies, eating pizza,” he told Reuters early Wednesday. “We just had breakfast. It’s like a sleepover.”

Their overnight adventure was shared by two parents who were unable to leave after they had arrived to pick up their children, he said.

“I had some parents who were in their cars for seven hours to go seven miles,” Rogers said.

In Birmingham, Alabama, about 800 students remained stranded in their schools early Wednesday, Birmingham Mayor William Bell said. Teachers stayed with them, giving them food and water, he said.

“We realize that is not good enough for parents who want to hold their children in their arms,” Bell said. “We are doing all we can to reunite children with their parents.” (Additional reporting by David Beasley in Atlanta, Verna Gates in Birmingham, Alabama, and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas.; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Bernadette Baum)

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