Proving that humanity can trump cold

This was supposed to be a column about how our newsroom came together to report and deliver the news amid the chaos of a natural (and man-made) disaster.

About how reporters and editors slept on the floor and worked around the clock to keep Georgians up to date when information was murky, at best.

About how we provided free access to and our Today’s Paper app so that readers could find the latest news on their computers, tablets or phones – and how we smashed records with 12 million page views.

But snow and ice melt. Gridlocked streets eventually return to normal. Abandoned cars are claimed.

So this isn’t a column about all of the behind-the-scenes work that unfolded in our newsroom over the last few days.

Instead, it’s a column about us: The millions of us who live in this traffic-choked, humid, hazy, crazy little corner of the world. Those of us who know a thing or two about Southern hospitality – about the importance of picking one another up when everyone else lets us down.

“Hey folks. I’m a trucker stuck on I-285 at exit 60. I have some food and water for anyone close to me. I’ll walk up to a mile or so to help if needed. I don’t have a ton, but I have enough to spare … times like this, we help each other.”

That offer was among the many posts on the newly created Facebook page, SnowedOutAtlanta.

The page, along with other forms of social media, captured the urgency – and generosity – around us.

“I have a friend with her 2-year-old and 4-year-old and mother with diabetes at a truck stop since yesterday afternoon,” one post read. “She cannot get home to Villa Rica. Please help her. Please.”

“School bus 560 is behind me on 285 above Camp Creek and full of kids,” another post read. “Had a bag of oranges in my car I took back to them; not a four-course meal but at least it’s something.”

There was this: “Thank you to everyone. I found my mom!”

And this: “I do not have a vehicle that can successfully get anywhere, or shelter available as I am in campus housing at Georgia Tech. However, I can help in any other way I possibly can. Please message me if there is anything I can do!”

The random acts of kindness were all around us.

Here, at the newspaper office, the chef who runs our cafeteria spent two nights sleeping in our building so that we’d have dinner and a hot breakfast. Our publisher and our editor made sandwiches and helped feed a hungry and weary newsroom. Employees who lived nearby opened their homes to co-workers. One editor spent more than five hours getting back and forth to work – but still found time to make cookies so that we’d have snacks.

Over at the Microtel Inn and Suites near our office, June Cave, the general manager, was heartbroken after telling more than 200 people that the hotel was booked.

“I told a Vietnam veteran that if I had some nails and a hammer I’d build him a room.”

Those with no place to stay were allowed to camp out in the lobby.

“I don’t want them sitting in a car, freezing to death,” Cave told me. “I can’t have that on my conscience!”

Cave and a few other employees braved icy sidewalks to bring back pizzas and bottled water for those who were stranded, hungry and thirsty.

Similar scenes unfolded across the region: Home improvement stores, grocery stores, even drug stores, became hotels of sorts – minus the comfort of a bed, a pillow and wake-up call.

Back outside, the pleas for help continued. And you answered the call.

On our ShoutOut! page – a special feature on where Georgians could thank their neighbors – one person wrote: “Thank you to the gentleman who gave me his USMC hoodie so I could wrap it around my 11-month-old son as we walked home.”

Another said: “To all the wonderful staff and residents at Elmcroft Retirement Community in Roswell: Thanks for opening your doors and providing a safe and warm haven for the walking stranded. Your kindness, understanding and hospitality will never be forgotten.”

The gridlock, the frustration and all of the finger-pointing among our elected leaders captured national attention. Our front-page headlines – FROZEN IN PLACE and HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? – became symbols of all that went wrong, and they underscored our commitment to holding our public officials accountable.

Last week, we certainly saw metro Atlanta at its worst.

But we also saw it at its best, and we reflected that in our coverage, too: From the man who handed out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hot chocolate to motorists stuck on the Downtown Connector to the Sandy Springs family who took in complete strangers.

One reader summed it up best on our ShoutOut! page:

“This event showed the kindness of strangers in a huge way. Everyone I encountered was kind, patient, smiling and helpful. From the gas station attendants, to people driving beside you, to the hotel clerk who slept in his chair talking to people all night. Amazing show of Southern courtesy and hospitality – and just plain human kindness.”