ATLANTA -- Thousands of Atlanta students stranded all night long in their schools were reunited with their parents Wednesday, while rescuers rushed to deliver blankets, food, gasoline and a ride home to countless shivering motorists stopped cold by a storm that paralyzed the business capital of the South with less than 3 inches of snow.
As National Guardsmen and state troopers fanned out, Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal found themselves on the defensive, acknowledging that the storm preparations could have been better. But Mr. Deal also blamed forecasters, saying he was led to believe that it wouldn't be so bad.
"I'm not thinking about a grade right now," the mayor said when asked about the city's response. "I'm thinking about getting people out of their cars."
National Guardsmen in Humvees, state troopers and transportation crews delivered food and other relief, and by Wednesday night, Mr. Deal said all Atlanta-area schoolchildren were back home with their parents.
The icy weather wreaked similar havoc across much of the South, closing schools and highways, grounding flights and contributing to at least a dozen deaths from traffic accidents and a mobile home fire.
Yet it was Atlanta -- home to major corporations and the world's busiest airport -- that was Exhibit A for how a Southern city could be sent reeling by winter weather that, in the North, might be no more than an inconvenience. The mayor admitted that the city could have directed schools, businesses and government offices to stagger their closings Tuesday afternoon, as the storm began, rather than dismissing everyone at the same time.
The result was gridlock on freeways that are jammed even on normal days. Countless vehicles were stranded, and many of them were abandoned. Officials said 239 children spent Tuesday night aboard school buses; thousands of others stayed overnight in their schools.
One woman's 12-mile commute home took 16 hours. Another woman gave birth while stuck in traffic; police arrived just in time to help. Drivers who gave up trying to get home took shelter at fire stations, churches and grocery stores. One traffic death was reported in Atlanta -- that of a man killed in a crash.
Atlanta was crippled by an ice storm in 2011, and officials had vowed not to be caught unprepared again. But in this case, few closings or other measures were ordered ahead of time.
Mr. Deal, who is up for re-election in November, said warnings could have been posted along highways earlier and farther out Tuesday.
"But we don't want to be accused of crying wolf. Because if we had been wrong, y'all would have all been in here saying, 'Do you know how many millions of dollars you cost the economies of the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia by shutting down businesses all over this city and this state?' " he said.
Mr. Deal faulted government forecasters, saying they warned that the storm would strike south of Atlanta, and that the city would get no more than a dusting of snow. But the National Weather Service explicitly cautioned Monday that snow-covered roads "will make travel difficult or impossible." And around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, the agency issued a winter storm warning for metro Atlanta and cautioned people not to travel except in an emergency.
Around the time the traffic jam started, Mr. Deal and Mr. Reed were at an award ceremony recognizing the mayor as the "2014 Georgian of the Year." Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor left before 1:30 p.m. and was in constant contact with emergency officials.
Elsewhere in the South:
* Alabama officials said rescuers and medics in helicopters were flying over hard-hit counties on search-and-rescue missions. State troopers said five people were killed in traffic accidents that may have been weather-related.
* Schools across much of North Carolina were closed Wednesday, and some colleges canceled class.
* The Virginia coast was blanketed in as much as 10 inches of snow Wednesday morning. Tens of thousands of sailors were told to stay away from the region's Navy bases unless they were essential.