Georgia governor gears up to avoid another stormy fiasco in Atlanta

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal announces a state of emergency for 45 counties ahead of a winter storm expected to hit the state Monday evening. The measure follows widespread criticism of gridlock during the last storm.

Brant Sanderlin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Georgia Emergency Management Director Charley English, left, speaks as Gov. Nathan Deal looks on during a press conference Monday in Atlanta. Deal issued a state of emergency Monday morning in advance of winter weather that is forecast for the area.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) announced on Monday a state of emergency for 45 counties ahead of a winter storm projected to surge into the state on Tuesday evening. The measure appeared to be the governor’s response to the blistering criticism he weathered last month over lackluster preparation for a snowstorm that produced epic scenes of gridlocked traffic across Atlanta.

"The ice-age-zombie-doomsday apocalypse has come to Atlanta," quipped late-night comedian Jon Stewart. For a governor facing voters in November, Mr. Deal would no doubt want to avoid another run as the brunt of late-night-TV jokes.

Deal’s announcement comes after the National Weather Service issued a winter weather warning from Monday evening through Tuesday evening for northern Georgia, as well as a winter weather watch for the both northern Georgia and the metro Atlanta area from Tuesday evening until Thursday morning. The storm is projected to begin with about 1 to 2 inches of snow and then follow up with a mix of sleet and rain, making travel dangerous, the service said.  

Parts of the Carolinas and Virginia are also under the same watch, and a winter weather advisory has been issued for a long sliver of the South, from Alabama to Texas.

After hearing the weather alerts, the governor met Monday morning with Operations Command, which includes emergency preparedness, transportation, health, and electrical officials, to draft a strategy for handling Georgia’s coming showdown with snow and for ensuring that the state comes out of it less bruised and battered than last time.

“I have directed the State Patrol, Department of Transportation, and Department of Natural Resources to begin moving assets toward areas where the snow and ice are expected,” Deal said, in a statement.

The governor also called upon all residents to stay off the roads after early Monday evening. He said he had reached out to health-care facilities to clarify backup plans in the event of power failures and asked the National Guard to be prepared for a possible call-up to Georgia, according to the statement. 

Atlanta Public Schools also announced that schools would be closed on both Tuesday and Wednesday, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported.

The governor’s promise that the state will be prepared to meet the coming storm, and the flurry of activity to ready the state for what would count as mere flurries in Minnesota or Michigan, are a departure from the state’s last brush with winter weather, when Deal’s administration appeared to wing it – an approach that did not go well.

Last month, what began as a light dusting of snow on a Tuesday morning throughout the Southern states escalated when a lacquering of ice slicked up the region’s roads just as commuters were throttling for home and school bells were ringing the end of the day.

Cities in six Southern states were stymied, but Atlanta smarted the most as the storm blustered through it. There, in what drew darkly comic comparisons to “The Walking Dead,” commuters were trapped in standstill traffic on the state’s interstates for upwards of 12 hours. Cars were abandoned as drivers and passengers set off in search of food and warmth. At least two babies were born in cars stopped in the huge traffic jam.

As the city began to thaw out, officials came under fire from residents who said the disaster could have been prevented but that leaders failed to prepare. State and city officials in snow-stung Georgia defended their choices to minimize advanced preparation, saying that some forecasts had predicted a storm of much smaller proportions and that hastening to close down the Atlanta area seemed a wasteful gamble of time and resources.

“We don’t want to be accused of crying wolf,” Deal told reporters, at the time.

But many doubted that officials did all that they could, or should, have done. The National Weather Service had issued a major winter storm warning for the entire Atlanta metro area at 3 a.m. on the morning of the storm.

Nine hours after that warning was issued, though, Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (D) were at a champagne awards brunch, the Monitor reported. Schools were still open, and a state of emergency had yet to be declared.

Deal’s administration did not issue a state of emergency until 5 p.m. on Tuesday, long after the state’s interstates had clogged with immobile traffic and the scale of the drama had become apparent.

Weeks after the storm, Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) spokesman Ken Davis told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that GEMA had a mass alert system in place – the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System – that could have been used to issue a mass weather and traffic alert, but had never tested or configured it.

The governor later amended his tone, saying his state should have been better prepared – and that it would be, next time.

"I'm not going to look for a scapegoat," Deal told reporters. "I am the governor. The buck stops with me. I accept the responsibility for it, but I also accept the responsibility of being able to make corrective actions as they come into the future."

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