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Our Views: Blizzard of criticism

City, state response to snow could have been better, but blame is piling too high

POSTED: February 2, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Anyone ready for spring?

A winter to remember —or forget —turns to February from a January we’re glad to leave behind. Whatever the groundhog sees when he pokes his head out this morning, we hope single-digit temperatures, snow and ice are gone for awhile.

The snowfall that struck Tuesday iced over roads and closed schools and businesses in Northeast Georgia, but we avoided the worst of the storm’s aftermath. In metro Atlanta, interstates were like scenes from a zombie film as jackknifed tractor-trailers and abandoned cars clogged major highways. Some sat in the gridlock for 24 hours or more, others sleeping in office buildings and hardware stores. One couple even delivered a baby amid the chaos.

And well before the thaw began, fingers were pointed at Gov. Nathan Deal, state officials, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and local school districts. Be it a hurricane, a “superstorm” or a few inches of snow hitting at the worst possible time, some believe all nature’s challenges can be overcome with enough road equipment and central planning.

They’re right in the sense we can always learn and improve response, which both the mayor and governor promise to make happen. After a 2011 snowstorm crippled the city, officials vowed to prepare better.

But a perfect storm of circumstances turned a modest snowfall into something much worse. Let’s look at elements that came together make it such a cataclysm:

• Weather. Forecasters knew we would get some kind of snowy mix but weren’t sure how much or where until it began. This can occur in the South, where a complex mix of cold air and moisture must blend just right for frozen precipitation.

Because of this, native Georgians tend to greet such forecasts with skepticism. Over the years, snow predictions that led to school closings and empty grocery shelves often spawned a scant few flakes. Where snow may be a certainty up north, it’s a phantom here, years of false alarms fueling doubt. We only believe it when it starts to stick.

Some also wondered how a major city can be so ill-equipped for snow. But these weather events occur a few times each decade, at most. Does it make sense for Southern governments to invest heavily in snow-removing equipment that will sit rusting for years until needed?

• Timing. Most snowfall here occurs overnight: We wake up to a dusting, schools close, we hunker down with some hot chocolate. This time, it hit at midday, and as schools and businesses closed, everyone crowded highways at the same time, compacting the usual rush hour into a few hours. With a warm ground and air temperatures below freezing, snow fell, melted, then refroze into a crusty sheet of ice no winter-hardened expert can drive on.

• Traffic. Simply put, Atlanta has too many people. The city’s highways can’t handle the 5 million plus who fill them in the best of weather. Put everyone on the road at the same time, add ice, and you get Armageddon. And as the governor pointed out, the large number of 18-wheelers stuck in the gridlock made it worse.

Solutions aren’t easy. Transportation funding is a priority competing with schools, health care and public safety for tax dollars. A roads sales tax plan was rejected by voters, and public transit is problematic in a sprawling region with no clear hub.

The metro population’s exploding growth over just a few decades have pushed public services to the limit. To fix that requires higher taxes, but low taxes are why many businesses and residents choose to move here in the first place.

And it’s worth noting many of the talking heads on CNN and The Weather Channel who were critical of the response also live in the metro area, adding to the congestion.

• Schools. The release of students midday caused few problems in Hall County and Gainesville, certainly not the unholy mess seen elsewhere. In some metro counties, buses were sent out on icy roads as parents were also scrambling for home. As a result, some kids were stranded on roads, others spending the night at schools with no way home.

In their defense, school officials are put in a no-win dilemma: If they close ahead of time and little or no snow falls, they get blasted for inconveniencing working parents and fouling up the calendar. So we don’t envy them in these situations.

• Leadership. Wednesday morning quarterbacks in the national media criticized metro Atlanta’s lack of central authority; one columnist referred to the region's “balkanized” metro governance.

That’s true; Georgians prefer it that way, as it keeps taxes low and makes local leaders more responsive to residents’ needs. Many suburban communities seek to form new municipalities to focus decision-making closer to home.

And while it’s certainly desirable to have a strong central authority in a crisis, it can be a burden at other times. Metro residents don’t need an all-powerful mayor deciding how big their soft drink cups should be.

Deal and Reed were criticized for their lack of communication, ironic considering the strong bipartisan relationship they have forged. Yet each handled the withering fire well and took responsibility.

But communication between emergency management officials and the governor’s office could have been much better and the response much quicker. And this being an election year, look for candidates to turn that into campaign fodder, fair or not.

The prevailing national view that Georgia and metro Atlanta are backward-thinking isn’t reflected in how people from around the world have flocked to live in our state. If clearing snow quickly is a high priority for some, it seems many others choose to live where less of it falls. Come April, Georgians again will be the envy of those still shivering near the Great Lakes.

That said, tales of jam-packed highways and the human toll from the storm aren’t to be taken lightly. Rather than casting blame in search of a scapegoat, lessons should be learned to make our state more ready next time.

Yet even with ideal preparation and decision-making, governments can’t prevent all bad things from happening. Despite our man-made means to overcome her, Mother Nature occasionally throws us a curve we can’t hit, as if to remind us we don’t fully control our fate after all.


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