ATLANTA — Atlanta’s freezing temperatures, rare snowstorm and 20-hour commutes were almost a memory Jan. 31 as temperatures were on the rise and the last of 2,000 cars left stranded by the side of highways were being rescued.Mark Hacker helps salt a road with a spreader to help motorists gain passage down an ice-coated street in Smyrna, Ga., Jan. 29. Interstates and local roads were gridlocked starting in the early afternoon Jan. 28, after a storm dropped several inches of snow, and schools and businesses closed early. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

But in the midst of the Jan. 28 storm that paralyzed the city, more than 80 students were sheltered overnight in Archdiocese of Atlanta schools when snow and ice turned area roads into gridlocked parking lots as students were being dismissed.

Diane Starkovich, superintendent of Catholic schools, said teachers and administrators made the safety of the students their priority.

“The principals implemented early dismissal procedures, stayed till the last child was picked up (if possible) and are doing what they do best – taking charge and keeping everyone safe,” she said via email Jan. 29.

Interstates and local roads were gridlocked starting in the early afternoon Jan. 28, after a storm dropped several inches of snow, and schools and businesses closed early. As the night went on, road conditions turned to ice, stranding even more drivers.

Several schools stayed open. The biggest overnight crowd was at St. Jude the Apostle School, where three dozen youngsters stayed, the superintendent said.

Parents were naturally concerned, but students seemed to take the challenge in stride, Starkovich said.

“Movies, popcorn, sleeping mats, blankets, gyms, basketball – kids can make their own fun and they did,” she said.

People who left the school hours earlier reappeared throughout the evening for shelter. One was a pregnant teacher who left at 2 p.m. Police returned her to the school at midnight when she couldn’t get home. The last arrival at the door was a parent at 12:45 a.m.

The school was prepared for the overnight guests. The cafeteria is a full-service kitchen and there was a food delivery earlier in the week. Bedding came from sheets used in the sixth-grade Greek festival. Kids entertained themselves in the gym, played games, watched some movies, and ran around the hallways.

“It was fun. We were warm, dry and fed. We had a lot to be grateful for, and others were not as fortunate,” Patty Childs, St. Jude principal, told The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Atlanta Archdiocese.

The staff responded to the crisis “with grace and a spirit of cooperation,” she said.

Five stranded people found shelter overnight at the archdiocesan chancery in Smyrna, pulled into the warmth of the building by a staff member who was helping drivers on a nearby highway.

Daniel West, one of four archdiocesan employees unable to leave work in time as conditions deteriorated, said after listening to the sound of cars spinning out on the major county road for hours, he decided to see if he could help people out.

He joined others trying to push cars up a hill one at a time, using cat litter from a Target store for traction.

“It took 10 to 15 minutes trying to get one car through. It was a tough, difficult situation, trying to encourage everyone, if we help (each other), we can get through this faster,” he said.

After midnight, “some people were hunkering down for the night” in their cars, he said, and he “went knocking on car windows and telling them there is a warm place (to stay overnight) if you want to join me.”

“We have a whole building here that was heated. I would appreciate it if someone did that for me,” said West, who is associate director of marriage, family and pastoral care in the Office of Formation and Discipleship.

The guests slept in the lobby area on benches and chairs, and the stranded staff members pulled together to form makeshift beds, West said. They cobbled together breakfast from items in break rooms like frozen meals and cans of soup.

“I had a sense to stay and now you understand why. … Maybe someone would have been hurt if I couldn’t help them here,” he said. “I am happy to go with God’s flow when I can. It’s not us. It’s God’s grace.”

The Catholic community also opened its doors to stranded drivers.

At St. Anthony of Padua Church, Atlanta, the parish listed itself on a community crisis map as a refuge from the storm. The morning of Jan. 29, a couple visiting from Texas took the parish up on its offer of hot showers and a place to nap.

The church’s posting on the SnowedOutAtlanta Facebook page caught the eye of their daughter.

“They just physically could not get out of the southwest downtown area due to the road and traffic conditions,” said the couple’s son-in-law, Lee Whiteside, who lives on Saint Simon’s Island.

“We had many prayers going up for them and are very thankful they are safe and have shelter for the time being. … Y’all are the hands and feet of Jesus, living out his words on the ground,” he added.

Nelson is a staff writer at The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Atlanta Archdiocese. Gretchen Keiser, editor, contributed to this story.