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?
Tuesday's snowfall – and the hundreds of thousands of motorists who flooded the metropolitan area's roadways as the storm was moving in – created travel nightmares for commuters, truckers, students and their families.
Some 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. Home Depot stores and fire stations provided shelter to stranded motorists.
After so much havoc was caused by a storm that brought only 2-3 inches of snow to most of the Atlanta metro, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed face withering scrutiny over their handling of the storm.
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."
Reed 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 a wider impact than on 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 their way elsewhere, on Interstates 75, 85 and 20; other interstate highways in the region include 285, 575 and 675.
Robert Puentes, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution, says the region's paralyzed 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 snow storms.
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. 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 the other factors were exacerbated by people driving too fast for conditions.
And the Atlanta metro became a parking lot.