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Year Gets Off to a Flaky Start in the South

Weather: Children play but travelers wait as a winter storm brings unexpected joys and pains. Eight inches of snow is expected to fall.

January 03, 2002|EDITH STANLEY and STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ATLANTA — Snowmen, small but spunky, dotted front lawns in Alabama. The chicken and okra gumbo was going fast among shivering diners in Baton Rouge, La. And in rural Georgia, a herd of cattle huddled close in cold bewilderment.

"They think the sky is falling," their owner, Angela Hill, explained.

It was, of course, only snow. But snow is a rare treat--or curse--around here. And Wednesday brought plenty of it, all across the Southeast.

From Louisiana to North Carolina, a winter storm ushered in the new year with snow, sleet and bitter cold (bitter, that is, by the South's standards, with temperatures dropping into the 20s). Meteorologists predicted up to 8 inches of snow in parts of the region, with the heaviest accumulation in north Georgia and the Carolinas.

The weather caused a fair share of trouble. Icy roads in Mississippi were blamed for three deaths. "We've literally had wrecks upon wrecks," Highway Patrol Master Sgt. Walter Armstrong said. "We even had two patrol cars hit."

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 5, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Southern snow--A photo caption Thursday in the A section of a monk in Conyers, Ga., running with geese erroneously called them Canada geese. The geese were greylags and greylag-Canada goose mixes.

Some highways were briefly closed in Louisiana. State offices shut down early Wednesday in parts of Georgia and South Carolina, sending workers home as road conditions worsened.

At Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport--normally the nation's busiest--hundreds of flights were canceled and others delayed for hours. Though the runways were clear, the airport has only a dozen pads to de-ice planes. That was not enough. By late afternoon, planes were lined up nose-to-tail waiting for takeoff clearance. Some passengers reported being stranded on the tarmac for three hours; others, their flights scratched, paced the airport grumbling about the unexpected extension of their new year's holiday.

By 4:30 p.m. PST, management consultant Alex Zuccarelli's plane had been waiting on the tarmac for three hours; so many planes had been grounded that there were no gates free for hers to park. Her dinner had been two biscotti and an orange. Her prospects of making a connecting flight to a consulting job in South Carolina looked bleak. And the mood on her Boeing 757 could not be described as holiday cheer.

"People are tired, hungry and a little antsy," Zuccarelli said. She looked out the window. The snow was starting to fall in earnest. She lives in Denver; she knows snow. This did not look good. Zuccarelli revised her assessment of the mood. Antsy no longer cut it. People are on the verge of being very angry, she said.

Outside the airport, though, there were plenty of smiles as the flakes fell. In Atlanta, kids grabbed metal lids off garbage cans and careened down their driveways on the makeshift sleds. In Alabama, there were plenty of snowmen--even if children had to scrape every last corner of their yard bare to collect enough of the white stuff to make a good one. Throughout the region, kids tried their hand at snowball fights.

"It doesn't snow very frequently here, so when it does, it's like a national play day," Hill said as she drove off to deliver extra hay to her herd.

Though the cows looked to be terrified--"they're clustering together like a bunch of grapes," Hill scoffed--their owner was clearly entranced. The weather matched the Christmas decorations she had strung all over the bed and breakfast she runs, the Georgian Inn in Greenville, Ga. "It's beautiful. Everything is white, white, white."

In nearby LaGrange, Ga., Mike Joyce, manager of the Highland Country Club, echoed her reverie. He lost about $1,200 worth of business when he decided to shut down his restaurant Wednesday afternoon, before the roads got too bad. And he had to cancel a few dozen rounds scheduled at the club's golf course. Still, he couldn't help but see the beauty: "It looks like a picture postcard right now."

The storm, caused by a low-pressure system over the Gulf of Mexico, was "pretty unusual" because it was centered so far South, said Scott Wendt, a meteorologist for Weather Central Inc. To be sure, it was nothing compared to the monster snowfall that paralyzed Buffalo, N.Y., last week. But 7 inches of snow here compares with 7 feet there, at least in terms of public reaction.

"We have no experience with this," said Jim Ermen, a real estate broker in Montgomery, Ala. "If the roads get icy, you get off the roads."

A transplant from Detroit, Ermen considers himself a bad-weather veteran. (He doesn't even try to tell his Southern friends stories about Detroit's wintertime woes, he said, because they just don't understand.) Yet for all his experience, he was as unprepared as any local for digging out from a storm: "We divested ourselves of our snow shovel a long time ago."

As it turned out, the snow in Ermen's neighborhood was light--no shovel needed. Elsewhere in the South, however, folks rushed to stock up on novelties that had suddenly become necessities as meteorologists warned that the slush accumulating on many streets and driveways would likely turn to ice by morning.

"People are buying rock salt, kerosene and propane," said Dee Hitchcock, a clerk at Bates Ace Hardware in Atlanta. That was about all she could say; the rush that had kept her hopping all day showed no signs of abating as dusk fell. "Ma'am, I don't mean to be rude," she said, "but I have a line of people waiting at my register."

*

Stanley reported from Atlanta and Simon from St. Louis. Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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