Freak snowstorm, cold snap paralyses US South

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The usually balmy US South was paralysed Wednesday by a freak snowstorm that forced children to shelter in their schools overnight and prompted officials across the region to issue emergency declarations.

Schools remained closed in many localities across the South on Wednesday, as authorities struggled to shake off Tuesday's unaccustomed snowfall and freezing temperatures.

Temperatures in Atlanta fell to -10 degrees Celsius, the coldest in memory for many residents.

Emergency declarations were issued in several southern states, as a result of the wintry conditions felt as far south as Texas and affecting Florida, Alabama, South Carolina and other states famous as havens from the northern winter.

Television footage early Wednesday showed traffic still snarled in many places, more than 24 hours after the backups began forming.

Hundreds of traffic accidents were reported across the region on Tuesday, including several involving lumbering yellow school buses that slid off ice-slickened roads and were unable to make the journey to pick up students at the end of the school day.

Commuters found themselves in a similar bind, with thousands of stranded motorists forced to camp out on the floors of roadside shops and convenience stores that helpfully remained open overnight.

News reports said officials early Wednesday were still trying to rescue motorists stranded on the sides of roads, many of whom had been forced to tough out the night in their vehicles. Only about two to three inches of snow fell in Atlanta, but it was enough to create hazardous road conditions for locals not used to driving on it.

Compounding the problem is that many roads had not been pre-treated with sand and salt to make them more passable. The snowfall also was heaviest as schools were letting out for the day, and as workers were fleeing downtown offices.

The mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, pleaded with residents in the city of some one million people to stay off the roads Wednesday to give officials the ability to resolve lingering crises from Tuesday's disastrous commute.

"We urge the public to stay home as much as possible today to allow our crews to make our roads safe, passable and fully open for business as soon as possible," said Reed, adding that the first priority for city officials "is ensuring the safety of all residents.

Some area residents were incensed that the government did not have the foresight to cancel classes ahead of the start of the school day. "Kids are still stranded in some schools here in Atlanta," one Twitter user wrote, showing a photo of an auditorium filled with elementary school kids watching movies on a giant screen.

For their part, school officials tried to reassure anxious parents that their children were in good hands.

"Please know that if your child is still here, they have had dinner and are safe and warm," school officials in Atlanta wrote in an email late Tuesday.