The forecast had called for snow. But it was the South and snow forecasts were notoriously wrong. Lizzie McDonald knew that if the TV weatherman said snow, it would be sunny. Atlanta snow was fickle. Surely it wouldn’t snow today. Surely.
Those in leadership apparently agreed with her. The governor and the mayor of Atlanta were at an event at the Ritz Carlton. The superintendent of her son’s school had run the buses in the morning. They couldn’t be wrong. Because they had a direct line to the National Weather Service.
But the National Weather Service HAD called for two inches of snow. And around noon, the flakes fell furiously, fulfilling the meteorologists’ frozen prophecy.
Her son’s school, trying to call it a full day, held out as long as they could. All the schools did. And all at once, they released their students. Like they were heeding the quarry whistle on the Flintstones’, everyone in Atlanta poured onto the interstates at once.
You could almost hear the whole Metro area grind to a halt.
Most snows in Atlanta fall when it’s near freezing — thus, the roads are usually warm and the snow slushy. Not this storm. A Polar Vortex gripped Hotlanta, chilling it and its infrastructure to the bone. The flakes that did fall immediately stuck. And what few sand and salt trucks existed couldn’t keep up with the numerous icy roadways and bridges. This was Atlanta after all, not Buffalo. People in the South didn’t do snow. As the people jammed the freeway, dangerous ice began to accumulate.
Lizzie watched the disaster unfold and was trapped. She was at the intersection of I-75 and I-285 and could see the Weather Channel’s HQ. She laughed nervously at the irony. They called this storm Leon. She called it Lucifer.
A car spun in front of her, rotating around twice and then slamming into a bridge support. She watched its driver hit his head, causing the side glass to shatter. An 18-wheeler on the other side slid and pushed 10 cars into each other.
As the flakes fell, her heart rate rose. She was trapped — and her son was 15 miles away.
Lizzie eyed her fuel gauge. 1/4 of a tank. She cursed under her breath. She never traveled with a coat or enough gas. Gas was expensive — especially for a single mother who worked as an assistant at a law firm. All she had was her son Thomas. She called the school in a panic. Finally a secretary answered. Yes, her son was safe. Yes, they would watch him along with the other students. No, he did not get out on the bus like some of the other kids. Those kids were trapped.
It was a shared miserable experience with thousands of Metro Atlantans. She looked over at the man in the Porsche next to her. He was screaming and hitting his steering wheel as hard as he could. While Lizzie understood how he felt, she knew it would do him no good.
Mother Nature was trying to outdo General Sherman’s wrath. Atlanta was a disaster — America’s 9th largest city now looked like a frozen used car lot. It resembled a pivotal scene from AMC Zombie show The Walking Dead.
Lizzie prayed quietly for rescue. She inched forward again, creeping slowly toward her final destination. She had to make it. Seconds turned into minutes turned into hours. She made it to the South Loop. Then she saw the Big Chicken in the distance. Another car slid off into the ditch. Forget the 1996 Summer Olympics — Atlanta was now holding it’s own twisted version of the Winter Olympics. And only auto body shops were going to get the gold.
Finally she got to the Chastain Road exit. Nine hours had passed, and darkness blanketed the apocalyptic scene. She turned right and crawled over the bridge. Finally, her wheels begin to futilely spin. She slid her car over to the side of the road and killed the engine. She tightened her coat and felt the burn as her high heels sank into the snow. She must get to Thomas. One frozen step after another — she would get there. She would make it. She felt the skin on her feet burn. Frostbite was starting to eat at her. But her determination burned and melted the pain away. She would make it. She would make it. She WOULD make it.
One mile down the road, she slipped, causing her to tumble onto the ice. Her head hit the ground, causing a gash on her forehead. She lay crumpled and felt the cold grip her like death. As her head throbbed in pain, she saw her father come up to her — a man who had died five years ago.
“Are you an angel?”
As she faded into blackness, her father turned into a rider on a four-wheeler. The tall, slender man picked the woman off the ground and hoisted her on his shoulder. He propped her on his four wheeler and gave her a sip of hot chocolate. “It’ll be OK, ma’am. It’ll be OK.” He looked down at her bloody feet as he wrapped her in a blanket. The poor woman must be in great pain.
“To the elementary school,” she mumbled. “take me to the elementary school…” She faded in and out. “Thomas. Must be with Thomas.”
The man put her in front of him on the four-wheeler and drove slowly the final few miles, weaving in and out of stalled cars. He helped her to the school’s front door.
At 1o p.m., a sleepy kindergarten teacher let Lizzie in. “Thomas,” she said as she handed over her ID. The teacher smiled and set out to make the reunion happen.
As Lizzie held her son, she turned around to find her angel. But there no one was there. And much to her surprise, there was only one set of footprints in the snow leading up to the front door.
So many good things had happened that night:
A stranger brought formula to family in the car with the infant.
A couple let the a family sleep in their den.
A drugstore took in the travelers.
A grocery store that allowed drivers in.
A fast-food restaurant fed the people trapped in their cars.
And a man on the four-wheeler rescued a mother trying to reach her child.
Because for one frozen night, Atlanta, not Los Angeles, became the city of angels.