When it comes to nailing down weather forecasts, the big loser this month isn’t the National Weather Service, the TV weather experts or the Farmers’ Almanac. It’s Gen. Beauregard Lee, the state’s official furry Groundhog Dog prognosticator, who saw no shadow and foresaw an early spring two Sundays ago.
Boy, was he ever wrong.
The region’s second winter storm of the year was bigger, more widespread and brought more frozen stuff, in the form of snow, sleet and freezing rain, than the first one that hit the last week of January. But this time, the impact was lessened in most areas, thanks to better preparation all around.
As with the January storm, we saw this one coming, and the forecasters mostly got it right. But because the predictions of a major storm were more dire this time, more people paid closer attention.
The contrast is pretty stark. The first storm hit at midday, and though it only dumped a couple inches of snow, it melted and froze quickly into an icy sheet just as hundreds of thousands of metro Atlantans tried to make it home when schools and businesses closed.
The result was a traffic jam of historic proportions. Snow-clearing trucks couldn’t get through the snarl as the crush of vehicles packed the snow down even tighter. And temperatures dropped into the teens, delaying the melting of the mess.
Through the finger-pointing and recriminations afterward, most came to realize the fiasco was less of a weather event than a traffic disaster. Having all those people on major highways at the same time created the mess that resulted. Yet in Gainesville, Hall County and other areas outside of the metro gridlock, such problems did not materialize.
State officials admitted they could have done better, however, and vowed to make amends before the next storm hit. That effort was evident last week. Alerts went out earlier and were more urgent. Schools and businesses shuttered ahead of the first batch of snow that hit overnight Monday into Tuesday. Plows and spreader trucks were loaded and ready, and with cars off the highways, they were able to treat roads more quickly and effectively.
As a result, there were no major traffic issues this time. As the second and worse wave of the storm hit Tuesday into Wednesday, icy roads sat deserted as people hunkered down at home. That made it easier for crews to get their work done and speeded up the melting when the sun emerged the next day.
State and local officials likely will get credit for communicating and acting more decisively this time, and they should. But credit also should go to Georgians who paid more attention to warnings this time and stayed off roads during critical times.
Yes, government has a responsibility to warn us when bad weather is looming, but we all have the same access to traffic and weather reports. When we make better decisions on our own, it helps to avoid the kind of catastrophe seen in January.
Yet many residents in east Georgia, particularly the Augusta area, suffered massive power outages from ice on trees and power lines. Again, utility and state officials responded as best they could, but thousands were left in the dark for days. That’s going to happen when a storm of that magnitude hits.
Even then, some believe government should do more to mitigate the results of the weather. We seem to live in an age now when every inconvenience is expected to be remedied immediately. Some in Augusta griped they felt “forgotten” that power wasn’t restored right away, as if someone could just flip a switch when trees come down and transformers explode.
Those old enough to remember the crippling ice storm of 1973 will recall power being out for up to a week in some areas as utility trucks zoomed around the state trying to fix downed lines. In those days, a coordinated response that brought in trucks and workers from other areas was not yet in place, so many sat shivering in dark homes for days. Yet the blame game wasn’t the default reaction then; no one expected nature’s fury to be overcome so easily, and they took their warmth and survival into their own hands and made the best of the situation.
In last week’s storm, we saw more of this as well, the result of people preparing, thinking clearly and pulling together. Much thanks should go to those who worked overtime to keep us all safe, including local law enforcement and fire services officers, emergency management directors, Georgia Department of Transportation crews and officials, and utility workers. While most of us can spend a snow day sitting in front a fire sipping hot cocoa, for them a major weather event leads to long days and extra work, and we thank them for the effort.
As the remaining bits of snow and ice melt, we will begin to see the lasting effects of this hard winter, not just on Georgia but the nation. Already the economic impact is being felt. National retailers say the harsh winter has hurt their business. Other industries likely to suffer include tourism and entertainment, with airlines canceling hundreds of flights and folks staying home more during frosty conditions.
And with Valentine’s Day arriving at the end of the week, money usually spent on flowers, candy, cards and fancy dinners likely was less than normal.
A few businesses did well in the storm; eateries like Waffle Houses and others were at full capacity, as were area hotels and bars. But shops that couldn’t open for days lost money, as did employees on the clock who were unable to work.
Governments will pay a price as well. The cost of rolling salt and sand trucks adds up, both for the materials they spread and the overtime costs of keeping workers on the job.
That aside, the good news is that no lives were lost in our area and we all got through it. With the lessons learned and the mess cleaned up, we move on in hopes spring brings some warm relief. That groundhog is bound to be right sometime.