ATLANTA - The winter storm paralyzing one of the nation's largest
cities - three years after another winter storm shut down the city in
much the same way - raises the question: Is Atlanta simply destined to
quit functioning every time it gets a few inches of snow?
snowfall - and the hundreds of thousands of motorists who flooded the
metropolitan area's roadways as the storm moved in - created travel
nightmares for commuters, truckers, students and their families.
PHOTOS: 10 gripping images from Atlanta snowstorm
CHAOS: Like a scene from 'The Walking Dead'
AFTER THE STORM: Heroes emerge in storm-struck South
TRAVEL: Thousands of flights axed
commuters were stuck in their vehicles Wednesday morning, up to 18
hours after they first hit the roads. Others had abandoned their cars in
or beside the road. Hundreds of students spent the night at school.
Some surrounding cities, including Hiram, Woodstock, Sandy Springs and
Acworth, opened emergency shelters for stranded motorists. The Home
Depot stores and fire stations provided shelter to stranded motorists.
so much havoc was caused by a storm that brought only 2-3 inches of
snow to most of the Atlanta metro area, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed face withering scrutiny over their handling of
the weather emergency.
On the Today show, Al Roker said
the traffic nightmare in Atlanta was caused by "poor planning on the
mayor and governor's part." Dalton, Ga., Mayor David Pennington, who's
running against Deal for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, said,
"Government's primary role is to protect the people; Nathan Deal has
failed miserably once again."
"I'm willing to accept whatever blame comes my way," Deal said. "And if I'm responsible for it, I'll accept that."
defended his handling of the situation, arguing, "We got 1 million
people out of the city of Atlanta in about 12 hours." He said the city's
response was better than after "Snowmageddon 2011," the winter storm
that paralyzed the Atlanta metro that year. He said the city has spent
$2.5 million since then on equipment. "Unlike the last event, when we
had four pieces of equipment in Atlanta, this time, we had 70 pieces of
equipment, and we knew how to use it."
The city's repeated,
winter-storm transportation crises have impact beyond commuters and
schoolchildren. Atlanta is a regional gateway city, meaning people
driving from points north, south, east and west of the city pass through
on on Interstates 75, 85 and 20; other interstate highways in the
region include 285, 575 and 675.
Because Atlanta is such a vital
air transportation hub, the storm walloped operations at the world's
busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. There
was a ground stop at the airport during part of the day Tuesday, and
Delta Air Lines canceled hundreds of flights. About 1,500 passengers who
could not get flights out spent the night at the airport, said
Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman Reese McCranie.
Robert Puentes, a
transportation expert at the Brookings Institution, says the region's
paralyzed road transportation network hammers the shipment of goods
through Atlanta. "So much of the freight industry is based on
just-in-time arrangements," he said. "I have no doubt it's having a
serious impact on goods moving broadly across the Southeast. Atlanta is
such an important hub when it comes to goods movement."
There was a
lot of lesson-learned soul-searching after Snowmageddon 2011. The
Georgia Department of Transportation purchased equipment and even sent
people to cold-weather cities to see how they handle snowstorms.
The next storm was supposed to be different.
It was not, and there were a number of contributing factors:
Metro Atlanta was caught flatfooted. When winter storms approach,
schools, businesses and government offices shut down in advance - a
method that Tim Lomax of the Texas Transportation Institute says usually
works in Southern cities. "When you get two snowstorms every three
years, it's easier to take that approach," he says. State and local
officials expected the brunt of the storm to hit south and east of
Atlanta; when it started snowing in communities in west and north
Atlanta, schools, businesses and government offices started closing.
That led to ...
• Too many people hitting the roads at the same
time. Reed and Deal have said repeatedly that everybody left for home
at the same time - instead of spreading it out over the normal 4 to 7
p.m. evening rush hour - deluging the roads. Reed noted that having
everyone get on the roads at the same time was a mistake. "We do take
responsibility for having the business community, the government and the
schools leave all at once," he said. He said there should be a
staggered schedule of releases: Students leave first, then private
business employees and finally government workers.
• The alarm was
sounded too late. Deal issued a state of emergency declaration after 5
p.m. Tuesday, well after governors in other Southern states had done so.
Such a declaration usually triggers school dismissals and business
closings. Deal acknowledged Tuesday that perhaps he should have acted
sooner. "That is a lesson we need to look at and see if it would have
made a difference in that situation," he said.
• The forecast path
of the storm changed. In the days leading up to the storm, forecasters
said the brunt of it would hit south of the city. By early Tuesday,
Deal said, Atlanta meteorologists predicted a storm path farther north,
but the governor said storm plans were made on the earlier forecasts
from the National Weather Service. Tuesday morning, when fairly heavy
snow started falling north of the city, people started hitting the
roads. DOT Commissioner Keith Golden said many of the department's
road-clearing crews were stationed in communities east and south of the
Atlanta metro area. When the storm hit Atlanta, those crews headed to
the city - and got stuck in traffic, too.
This might simply be
Atlanta's fate in winter storms: The city was also brought to a
standstill in a winter storm in 1993. And again during "Snow Jam 1982," a
storm that hit in January of that year.
Usually, the snow melts after a day or two - along with the resolve to prevent a recurrence.
This time around, all of the other factors were exacerbated by people driving too fast for conditions.
And metro Atlanta became a parking lot.