The skies above Atlanta can be fickle. Black clouds that deliver flashes of thunder and lightning in the afternoon can change quickly, clearing by nightfall.
On Tuesday before sunset it was a fluttering swirl of cash — and a lot of it — blowing through the air that brought traffic to a halt and people into the street when a side door of an armored Garda truck suddenly opened on a highway.
About $175,000 in bills spilled out and were carried away by the wind over a section of Interstate 285, which encircles Atlanta, the police said. The bills scattered to the shoulder of the six-lane westbound section of the highway. Some floated across the divider into eastbound lanes. Bills blew into the woods or sank into storm drains.
More than a dozen commuters screeched to a halt or veered off to the shoulder of the highway near the Dunwoody Road exits, the police said. They scooped up bills from the pavement and returned to their vehicles with fistfuls, and sometimes armloads, of cash.
One of them was Randrell Lewis, 26, an Uber Eats driver who was en route to Alpharetta.
“I just saw a cloud full of what looked like leaves,” he said in an interview. “No, it was money. I could not believe my eyes. I am not going to lie. The first thing I did was I pulled over and started picking up some money. Everybody started pulling over and it was crazy.”
Within minutes, Mr. Lewis said, he had snatched up about $2,000 in singles, fifties and hundreds. He returned $2,094 on Wednesday, the police said.
“I just wanted to really make sure I am not going to get in trouble for this,” he said.
As investigators from the Dunwoody Police Department scoured videos on social media of the spontaneous cash grab, reports filtered in on Wednesday of people stopping on their morning drives on the half-mile stretch of highway to see if there was anything left to scavenge, Sgt. Robert Parsons, a department spokesman, said.
“If the temptation is there, and you see money falling from the sky, most people would probably take the money,” he said.
The nation’s highways have been accidentally generous before. In 2004, an armored truck carrying $2 million flipped over on the New Jersey Turnpike during the evening rush, spilling tens of thousands of dollars in coins.
Last year, the back door of a Brink’s armored truck swung open during the morning rush on Interstate 70 near Indianapolis, losing an estimated $600,000 in cash onto the highway. A few months later, a Brink’s armored truck was driving on Route 3 in East Rutherford, N.J., when one of its doors malfunctioned and money blew out onto the roadway.
Some returned the money to the police, while others made off with sacks of cash. In the East Rutherford incident, the police recouped about $6,000.
As the authorities did elsewhere when the highways were unexpectedly giving, the police in Dunwoody, a suburb north of Atlanta, were watching on Wednesday to see how the limits of ethical behavior would play out.
“Heads up Dunwoody, it’s cloudy with a chance of cash,” the department said on Facebook, adding, “While we certainly understand the temptation, it’s still theft and the money should be returned.”
In an interview, Sergeant Parsons said that officers received a 911 call around 8 p.m. on Tuesday about people “frantically” scooping up the money near the Ashford Dunwoody Road exit along the highway, which is bordered by creek beds, trees and office towers.
“Multiple callers said there was cash flying all over the road,” he said.
By the time officers arrived, people who had pulled over to grab the loot were nowhere to be seen, Sergeant Parsons said.
“People likely saw the police lights coming over the highway,” he said. “‘Oops, time to go! Police are here! Party’s over!’”
Officers spoke to the Garda employees, who had stopped the truck on the shoulder after passing drivers had gestured to them that a door was open.
About $200 was retrieved from the highway and surrounding woods — a small fraction of the estimated $175,000 believed to have gone missing, or into peoples’ pockets, he said.
Detectives were trying to contact drivers by looking for license plate numbers on cellphone videos that had been posted on social media. But Sergeant Parsons said that the authorities had no intention of prosecuting anyone who returns the money.
“No harm, no foul,” he said. “But you need to turn that money in.”