Earlier forecasts by the National Weather Service called for highs Thursday of around 38 degrees in Atlanta. But the temperature at Atlanta's airport was just 19 degrees around 9 a.m. Thursday, casting doubt on those forecasts.
Heeding the warnings, school districts and state and local governments stretching from northwest to coastal Georgia announced that offices and classrooms would remain closed Thursday.
A storm that dropped just inches of snow Tuesday wreaked havoc across much of the South, closing 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 Georgia State Patrol responded to more than 1,460 crashes between Tuesday morning and Wednesday evening, including two fatal crashes, and reported more than 175 injuries.
At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, more than 400 flights in and out were canceled by 6 a.m. Thursday, according to data from the flight tracking service FlightAware. Many of those flights were canceled before the day began.
Thousands of schoolchildren either slept on the buses that tried and failed to get them home, or on cots in school gymnasiums. All were back home by Wednesday evening, officials said.
State transportation crews spent much of Wednesday rescuing stranded drivers and moving disabled and abandoned vehicles that littered the interstates, medians and shoulders. Gov. Nathan Deal said emergency workers, police, and the National Guard would help drivers Thursday to recover their cars and would provide them with fuel if necessary.
Crews planned to use four-wheel-drive vehicles to take motorists to vehicles they abandoned to reclaim them Thursday. State officials also said they were creating a database to help motorists locate vehicles that were towed to impound lots.
Gov. Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed found themselves on the defensive Wednesday, acknowledging that storm preparations could have been better. But Deal also blamed federal forecasters, saying he was led to believe it wouldn't be so bad.
However, the National Weather Service explicitly cautioned on Monday that snow-covered roads "will make travel difficult or impossible." The agency issued a winter storm warning for metro Atlanta early Tuesday and cautioned against driving.
Deal, who is up for re-election in November, said warnings could have been posted along highways earlier, but he also fended off criticism.
"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?'" Deal told reporters.
Speaking on NBC's "Today" show Thursday morning, Reed said many of the news photos and videos showing freeways littered with abandoned cars were not in the city but in the surrounding region. Reed noted that the city doesn't have jurisdiction of those freeways and said most streets in Atlanta itself were now passable.
The Atlanta area 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.