Atlanta gridlock fiasco: Did politics play a role in snowstorm gamble?

Mayor Kasim Reed and Gov. Nathan Deal tried to deflect blame for Tuesday’s massive snow gridlock that left many motorists stranded. But the state had already left its best winter weather expert out in the cold.

John Bazemore/AP
Ann Batsun waits for her car to be started on Interstate 75 in Atlanta Thursday. Batsun had to abandon her car after being stranded in Tuesday's winter storm. Police and the National Guard helped drivers reunite with their cars as the logjam eased and roads thawed, two days after a winter storm hit the Deep South.

Nine hours after the National Weather Service issued a 3 a.m. major winter storm warning for the massive Atlanta metro area on Tuesday, Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed were at a champagne awards brunch, and the lights were off at the Georgia Emergency Management Center.

When the snow began to fall and rapidly accumulate – sparking a mass exodus of workers and school kids – chaos and human drama ensued. Most of the departing workers and students became frozen in place as accumulating ice caused 1,500 car accidents and hundreds of jackknifed tractor-trailers.

The misery was total and complete, and Atlanta became a national laughingstock, the storm response a “snowball to the face of metro Atlanta’s image,” as the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s J. Scott Trubey wrote.

As politicians under fire are wont to do, both Messrs. Deal and Reed – the two most powerful men in the state – said they didn’t want to engage in the blame game after the winter weather fiasco.

“I’m not going to get into the blame game, but the crisis that we are going through is across the region,” said Mayor Reed, who also suggested that Atlantans weren’t mad at him. “If you look at anybody’s street in any community across the entire region, there’s no one doing a better job than we are in the City of Atlanta.”

But both men quickly broke the no-blame rule. Reed, in particular, found himself in the hot seat on the morning network shows on Thursday, where he blamed businesses and the school board for failing to stagger student and worker releases.

For his part, Governor Deal blamed weather forecasters for predicting no more than a dusting, which suggests to experts the governor’s staff may have been watching local TV instead of tracking widely available mesoscale weather models and ground temperature sensors that indicated clearly and forcefully that Atlanta was in the cross-hairs of a significant snow-and-ice event.

“The mayor and the governor got on TV … [and said] this wasn’t expected, and that’s not true,” said long-time national TV weatherman Al Roker. “This was poor planning, pure and simple. They were warned, they should have been prepared.”

To be sure, a mix of regret and deflection is normal from state leaders who make a bad call, and government of course isn’t responsible for holding everyone’s hand during bad weather. Snow-driving rookies and the fact that Atlanta is one of the nation’s premier interstate hubs certainly didn’t help the situation.

On the other hand, it is precisely in weather emergencies that government has resources – most people don’t have a salt truck in the driveway – that can at least alleviate the pain, fear, and danger that comes with being stuck in a car on a highway, in thousands of cases overnight.

The decision by the Atlanta Public Schools to open without announcing early closing times exacerbated the situation as buses and panicked parents added to the gridlock. The state also took a wait-and-see approach that resulted in already-scant plowing and salting resources getting stuck in traffic along with everybody else.

The lingering question as Atlanta finally clears its streets, drivers pick up abandoned cars, and a warm wave is slated to melt it all away on Friday and Saturday: How did those responsible for handling emergencies miss what to so many was an obvious call?

One telling comment came from the chief of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, Charley English, who declared on Tuesday that the roads were basically fine at 3 p.m., three hours after the massive jam began. He was contradicted by Deal himself, but experts said the comment suggested a bureaucratic disconnect, if not incompetence, that likely played into the failure to keep schools closed and to pre-treat surface roads with salt and sand ahead of the storm.

(While Northerners mocked the city for becoming paralyzed with only two inches of snow, the conditions were actually fairly dramatic as the snow within an hour quickly became packed into a quarter inch of sheer ice, a situation that even expert drivers would have found difficult.)

One possible reason for the state missing the call: Three years ago, Deal dismissed long-time state climatologist David Stooksbury, an EMT, emergency management specialist, and Atlanta native, after a clash over the state’s drought prognosis. Before he was dismissed, Stooksbury was always in the loop with state emergency managers during severe weather events.

On Tuesday, Mr. Stooksbury, a University of Georgia engineering professor, advised Athens, a smaller city but with similar population density to Atlanta. As a result, Athens had no gridlock, thanks largely to a decision to announce early school closures. In contrast, Atlanta schools dismissed in a panic once the snow began, only adding to the mayhem.

Those familiar with school board politics said officials thought that “just an inch” of snow wouldn’t be a big deal. Stooksbury said he may have given different advice if he had been asked, which he was not.

“If you were monitoring what was happening along the Alabama line … you saw that conditions were deteriorating very quickly, but the response in Atlanta was kind of, ‘Well, we’ll wait until we see it.’ ” Stooksbury said. “The fact is, an inch of snow in Atlanta is chaos. To me, this is a prime example of the fact that forecasts are always going to have some uncertainty, but how you manage that uncertainty is what’s important.”

“What I would like to suggest here is that there’s a chain of bad decisions” including what many saw as the political dismissal of Stooksbury, says University of Georgia geography professor John Knox. “Stuff doesn’t happen in isolation; you make one bad decision and the dominoes fall later on.”

The fallout from Atlanta’s snow chaos has taken on even deeper political tones, suggests The Atlantic contributor and metro Atlanta resident Conor Sen.

“Republicans want to blame government (a Democrat thing) or Atlanta (definitely a Democrat thing),” Mr. Sen writes. “Democrats want to blame the region’s dependence on cars (a Republican thing), the state government (Republicans), and many of the transplants from more liberal, urban places feel the same way you might about white, rural, southern drivers. All of this is true to some extent but none of it is helpful.”

It’s true that some local media were making more circumspect calls about the storm, giving an impression to some that the storm wasn’t a big deal, and probably would pass to the south of the city.

“At that time it was still, in most of the forecasts, anticipated that the city of Atlanta would only have a mild dusting or a very small accumulation if any, and that the majority of the effects of the storm would be south of here,” the governor said. “Preparations were made for those predictions.”

But that media-filtered local weather info was easily contradicted by the National Weather Service and widely available in-depth prognosis, which had moved significant snowfall north to most of the metro area by the time the school district said it would be open.

“What the heck were the advisers doing, if not tracking mesoscale models” that showed significant snowfalls, resident Jim Berry wondered, in a blog post.

The metro Atlanta region is a political and geographical overlay of hundreds of towns and dozens of counties, all around the hub of Atlanta and the seat of state government. But even given that governing complexity, it’s becoming apparent in the aftermath of what’s been dubbed “Gridlockgate” that the state and regional leadership became paralyzed out of fear of making the wrong call and thus angering parents and business leaders.

"[W]e don't want to be accused of crying wolf,” Deal later explained. “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?'"

But by Thursday, the governor was apologizing to those left stranded on roadways and to the parents whose children had to stay overnight in schools.
"As a parent, I certainly understand how someone would feel if their child was either on a school bus or at a school and unable to come back home," Deal said at a news conference in Atlanta. "The buck stops with me."

"Our preparation was not adequate," he said. "I accept responsibility for that."
Deal said he has ordered an internal review by "all agencies involved in this process," and he will accept offers of external review by outside agencies.

Better information flow and more competent analysis may have helped ease some of that fear, suggests Marshall Shepherd, the Georgia-based president of the American Meteorological Society.

“We still have challenges in how weather information is consumed, interpreted, or viewed by policymakers and decision-makers,” he wrote in a blog post. “This is ultimately the root of the Atlanta mess. I don't believe ‘anyone’ is necessarily to blame. The situation simply points out that we still have challenges in communicating across the science-decisionmaker-public ‘gap.’ ” 

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