ATLANTA -- Mayor Kasim Reed said Wednesday that the top priority for the city is getting food, water and gasoline to "a lot of people" still stranded on ice-locked highways in the nation's ninth biggest metropolitan area.
The Georgia National Guard was out in force in Humvees to reach e virtual parking lot on highways as desperate drivers either abandoned their vehicles outright or spent up to 24 hours waiting for relief.
Some commuters pleaded for help via cellphones while still holed up in their cars, while others gave up and trudged miles to their home.
Reed said he was coordinating with state officials and the Georgia Department of Transportation on their top priority: reach motorists still stranded on the highways.
"We are going to get folks out of their cars," he said. He did not offer an estimate of how many people were still stranding, telling reporters only that there were "a lot of people."
He also said 400 students were still stranded at North Atlanta high school and 100 at East Rivers elementary school, but that no students were still stuck in school buses on the highway.
In addition, Reed told reporters that while many freeways remained paralyzed, the city's priority routes to hospitals and for fire fighters were open and functioning.
The mayor defended his city's response to the storm, saying one million people got out of the city, but that many got stuck when they hit the interstates, which are maintained by the state.
That was little relief, however, for the harrowing experience faced by hundreds of motorists. Police in suburban Atlanta say one officer helped assist the safe delivery of a baby girl on a gridlocked interstate Tuesday after snow and ice brought traffic to a crawl.
Sandy Springs Police Capt. Steve Rose told The Associated Press that a traffic officer arrived on the scene only minutes ahead of the infant.
"Fortunately he had his emergency lights on and people got out of his way," Rose said. "The delivery was pretty flawless."
In addition to the children stranded in Atlanta schools, about 500 students in Paulding County were stuck at elementary, middle and high schools, and about 1,300 were sheltering in place in Douglas County.
Students were also trapped overnight in schools in Marietta and Cherokee counties.
"This has been an ordeal for everyone," said Georgia DOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale. "This storm and the bitter temperatures have caused so much difficulty, discomfort and anxiety for so many Georgians. We believe roadways will be restored to some level of normalcy today but would encourage the public to remain home, preferably all day."
Only about two-to-three inches of snow fell in Atlanta during the storm, but it was enough to ground hundreds of flights at Hartsfield International Airport — the U.S.'s busiest -- and paralyze the metropolitan area.
Debbie Hartwig, a waitress at an Atlanta area waffle house, said she managed to keep her cool thanks in part to the kindness of strangers after 10 hours on the road.
"I'm calm," she said. "That's all you can be. People are helping each other out, people are moving cars that have spun out or had become disabled. It's been really nice. I even saw people passing out hot coffee and granola bars."
"This was, hands down, the worst day of my life," Evan McLean of Canton, who told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he "was literally stranded on Canton road for two and half hours without moving an inch."
Cobb County chairman Tim Lee was among drivers stuck on I-75 in his truck north of the Chattahoochee River.
He said residents were calling him to request salt trucks, but he saw a silver lining in the lengthy gridlock.
"The good news is that traffic is so jammed up they can't get going too fast, so there's a lot fender benders but there's no injuries," he told The Marietta Daily Journal.
One traveler who had arrived Tuesday afternoon at Atlanta's airport from Maine spent five hours in traffic without moving when an WXIA reporter caught up with him.
He offered some Back East advice to Georgia's highway maintenance teams.
"You should put some salt on the road," he said. "When it's going to be wet and cold, get the salt trucks on the road. It's not hard."
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who dispatched guard troops to clear the freeways, said Tuesday's storm "came unexpectedly."
Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist with the University of Georgia and current president of the American Meteorological Society, said neither meteorologists in general, nor the specific forecast for the Atlanta area, were to blame.
"The buses had a tough time getting kids home, but meteorologists should not be thrown under the bus," he said.
Deal, like the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina, declared a state of emergency.
While the storm that gripped much of the Deep South has moved into the Atlantic, there is little chance of significant melting of untreated roads and bridges Wednesday, according to Weather Channel meteorologist Nick Wiltgen.
Highs may struggle to reach the freezing mark in cities such as Atlanta and Charleston, S.C., he said.. Areas near the Gulf Coast such as Mobile and Pensacola may not rise much above freezing, even if a few rays of sunshine peek through the clouds later in the day.
Contributing: Talia Richman, in McLean, Va.; Associated Press