Thousands of parents sat gridlocked in traffic, buses were stranded on the sides of roads and hundreds of students were still at school.
Schools were forced to hold sleepovers for children, parents were told to go home rather than fight the traffic and, as of Wednesday afternoon, buses were being escorted across town by police cars and sand trucks.
At 2 p.m. Wednesday, dozens of students were still not home.
‘Couldn’t predict’ this storm’
The county’s top schools officials said they had no idea so much snow would fall, or how early it would start.
The majority of the early forecasts had predicted less than an inch, and most of the snow would hit south of the city, they said.
“It was a surprise to everybody. Nobody anticipated this coming,” said Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of Cobb Schools.
At 9 a.m. Tuesday, Hinojosa was watching the weather. He thought the snow would start falling at about 2 p.m., but it started falling earlier than he anticipated.
Some computer models reported by TV weathermen Monday night showed the storm could hit as early as 10 a.m. Tuesday, but school officials said they did not see those reports and were not told that they existed.
As schools were let out, and buses released onto the roads, Hinojosa said he kept in touch with his top administrators. By 5 p.m. Tuesday, 100,000 students were already home and another 5,000 were on their way, he said. Roughly 400 students were forced to sleep in their schools.
“We apologize. We cannot control or predict the weather, but we can control how we react to it. Thanks, bus drivers, who put their lives in danger for the kids,” Hinojosa said.
He wouldn’t have done anything differently, he added. “Everything hit at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
By mid-afternoon Tuesday, Hinojosa was headed home. He said he didn’t hit that much traffic, and made it to his house in Smyrna, roughly seven miles from the central office, in less than two hours.
Lembeck also caught by surprise
“It was like nothing we had ever handled before,” said Marietta Schools Superintendent Emily Lembeck.
Lembeck said she was on the phone with bus drivers, parents, teachers and staff who were scattered across the district.
“It was not the snow that caused the problem. It was the traffic, and the inability of the buses to get through,” Lembeck said. “We handled it the best way possible to keep our students safe.”
This meant she was up, at her office, all night, coordinating buses, students, parents and working with city police to try to get everybody home.
“We should not have had the chaos ensue that did, the timing was not what we thought it would be. We had the perfect storm, so to speak, that became very imperfect in the dismissal of students,” she said.
A transportation nightmare
Cobb County has 975 buses in its system, all of which were on the roads Tuesday. Nearly 80,000 students were in these buses, trying to get home, said Chris Ragsdale, Cobb’s deputy superintendent for operational support.
As these buses joined the throngs of traffic lining almost every major street in the county, Ragsdale said 40 buses got stuck.
Students in these buses were escorted to other buses, or sent to wait inside grocery stores or restaurants that were still open, he said.
Traffic was thick everywhere across the district, and not one area was worse than any other, Ragsdale said.
As parents got worried and students sat on the roads, Ragsdale didn’t stop working. The National Guard and Georgia State Patrol were called in to help buses get students home in the early hours of Wednesday.
On a normal day, Marietta High School has 30 buses moving students home, said Principal Leigh Colburn. Only one made it to the school Tuesday.
“We didn’t expect what happened. I came to work thinking games, practices would be canceled. When it started snowing, within an hour the roads became completely passable to completely gridlocked,” Colburn said. After Marietta Sixth Grade Academy and one other school closed early just after noon, 20 buses picked students up and started shuttling them home, said Thomas Algarin, a spokesman for the district.
Five of the 20 buses had to turn around and return students to school because the roads were so bad, he said.
Most of the district’s streets were in complete gridlock, and buses were stuck everywhere, including Powder Springs Street, the 120 Loop and Burnt Hickory Road.
Lembeck halted all buses from leaving the rest of the elementary, middle and high school once she saw the degree of gridlock on city streets. It was safer to have students inside, where it was warm, than out on the streets, she decided.
An announcement on Wheeler High School’s website from 9:17 p.m. Tuesday said the school was still waiting for three buses to show up.
“It’s just been frightening the extent of how bad things are,” said Angie Delvin-Brown, who had two children graduate from Wheeler.
Delvin-Brown received an email from a Wheeler teacher Wednesday morning that said some students had suffered a nine-hour bus ride home, and that the principal and many teachers were still caring for students who had spent the night.
“It’s been a nightmare,” she said.
Sleepover at MHS
When Marietta High School ninth-grader Taikayla Ramsey arrived at school Tuesday, she had no idea she would not be going home that day.
As the snow continued to fall and the traffic reports were grim, Ramsey realized she would be spending the night at school.
She used a friend’s cellphone to stay in touch with her mother, who was stuck in traffic for six hours trying to get home from work, a commute that normally takes 10 minutes.
While her mother sat anxiously in her car, Ramsey watched the movie “The Avengers” and played basketball with her friends in the gym.
At first she was scared, but once dinner was served, Ramsey said the evening turned out to be fun. She got to know many of her teachers better, and spent time with friends.
Her mother was worried sick.
“It was scary. Is she going to eat? Where is she going to sleep? Was it warm enough for her?” Lonnice Burgess, her mother, wondered.
Burgess has two children in the Marietta School System, Taikayla at Marietta High School, and a 9-year-old son at Lockheed Elementary. She is disappointed at how events played out Tuesday, and was frustrated having to sit in traffic, not knowing where her children were.
“I think the whole system was all messed up yesterday,” she said. “It was crazy.”
At 5 p.m. Tuesday, Burgess was still in her car, and got a call from Lockheed, telling her to come pick up her son. She couldn’t. She was stuck on the road.
“I didn’t know anything,” she said.
Fortunately, her son made it home. He got a ride with a neighbor, and ended up having to walk in the snow from the neighbor’s car, which got stranded, Burgess said.
“It doesn’t make sense. I think schools should have been canceled. This was poor judgment of the superintendent, to get a call saying your kids can’t come home? The next time I hear the weather is bad, I’m going to keep my kids at home,” she said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Ramsey was on a bus in traffic on her way home. After seeing her family, the first thing she planned to do was take a shower, then maybe a nap.
“I’m sitting here praying my daughter comes home safely,” Burgess said.
More than half of students spent night, ‘ate very well’
Ginger Pratt, the culinary teacher at Marietta High School, was putting a few things away in her classroom as school ended Tuesday. She had plans to go home right after school, to try to beat any traffic. There were a few students in the hallway as she was getting ready to leave, and she asked them why they hadn’t left yet.
“I had no idea how many students we had here,” Pratt said.
She walked through the school, saw more students, and immediately realized she was in for a long afternoon.
Pratt did what she knew best. She cooked. She assembled a small group of her culinary students and began preparing a meal just after 3 p.m.
The group prepared appetizers from frozen pizza on hand. They made spaghetti, meatballs, chicken sandwiches and nachos.
“They were having a blast. We all came together,” Pratt said.
As night wore on, and the kitchen was cleaned by a group of student volunteers, Pratt made her way to the band room with a number of other teachers.
More than 1,200 students remained at school after dinner, Colburn said.
People stumbled in off the streets, looking for shelter, and Colburn organized the school.
Girls would sleep in the band room, boys in the seminar room.
A parent in the band called in and told Colburn about a stash of seat cushions, which were passed out to students for pillows.
Everyone slept in their clothes. Under their jackets. On the floor.
“I haven’t slept ... I graded some quizzes. I sat on the floor against the wall outside the band room,” Pratt said.
By midnight, there were about 700 students still at school.
Parents came as they could throughout the night, and by sunrise there were about 200 students left, Colburn said.
As of 11 a.m. Wednesday, 50 students remained at Marietta High. They had been there for more than 30 hours.
By 2 p.m. Wednesday, Lembeck said 15 students were still en route home.
“Ultimately when you step back and you look at how our staff, our teachers, support staff, including board members and the community that rallied behind these schools, they did the best job possible given the situation,” Lembeck said.
Schools are closed for both Marietta City and Cobb today.