What other cities can learn from Atlanta's ice debacle
POSTED: Thursday, January 30, 2014 - 10:00am
UPDATED: Thursday, January 30, 2014 - 10:04am
Holly Yan and Joe Sterling CNN — The finger-pointing began almost immediately -- and with good reason.
A mere few inches of snow had shut down Atlanta, forcing children to spend the night at schools, stranding drivers on interstates and making the city a laughingstock to the country.
Why did this happen?
Who's to blame?
And, more importantly, could this happen elsewhere?
Unlike Boston and New York, with their long-established infrastructures and diverse mass transit systems, Atlanta resembles the new American city.
It's not just a city but also a region; a metro area that claims its outlying suburbs as its own -- as do Orlando or Dallas or Charlotte.
It spans 28 counties sprawled over an area the size of Massachusetts.
On Tuesday, a rare weather phenomenon mixed with poor planning and an over-dependence on cars conspired to create a perfect storm.
What can other cities learn from Atlanta's debacle?
Let's comb through the claims and realities: both Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal put much of the blame on the fact that everyone -- from government, businesses and schools -- all tried to go home at the same time, clogging highways for hours.
"I said immediately yesterday that releasing all of these folks was not the right way to go," Reed said Wednesday. "If I had my druthers, we would have staggered the closures."
But the problem highlights how Atlanta and cities like it depend almost exclusively on cars.
Atlanta does have a commuter train system, but it doesn't serve the whole metro area.
While the city has a population of 1 million, the metro area's population is 6 million.
And when offices and schools let out Tuesday, the masses got in their cars to head to the suburbs.
An expansive public transportation system would have undoubtedly alleviated some of the ensuing traffic stress.
This week's debacle is also disturbing because if another catastrophe were to hit and roads were the only path out, Atlanta would be in the same situation again.
But there's little appetite for expanded mass transit in Atlanta.
Time and time again, residents in the outlying areas of metro Atlanta have given it the thumbs down.
A recent transit tax proposal failed, as many residents just don't want to spend the money.
Former Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who coordinated relief efforts along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, said things would have gone more smoothly this week if Atlanta's city government was more like New York's.
"They need to have in Atlanta the same type of government you have in New York City, where the mayor controls the city and everything around that city, and the mayor can make decisions on road closures; he has emergency powers as when schools close," he said.
The schools and the government should have been closed Tuesday, he said.
Metro Atlanta comprises 140 cities and towns -- most of which have their own leaders making their own decisions.
And even within the city of Atlanta, Reed doesn't call all the shots, like New York's mayor.
Reed said he doesn't have the ultimate say on some issues.
For example, Atlanta Public Schools was responsible for deciding when to send students home.
And the state is responsible for clearing interstate freeways.
But the mayor also said he would have done some things differently.
"We made a mistake by not staggering when people should leave, so I will take responsibility for that -- in lessons learned," Reed said Wednesday.
"If we had to do it again, we would have said, 'Schools, you go first, private sector, you go second, and government goes last.' And so I think that would have helped."
As thousands of Atlanta commuters sat motionless on interstates Tuesday night into Wednesday, Georgia's governor said the path of the storm caught officials off guard.
"We have been confronted with an unexpected storm that has hit the metropolitan Atlanta area," Deal told reporters late Tuesday night.
He said as of 10 a.m. ET Tuesday, "it was still, in most of the forecasts, anticipated that the city of Atlanta would only have a mild dusting or a very small accumulation, if any, and that the majority of the effects of the storm would be south of here. Preparations were made for those predictions."
The National Weather Service put the entire Atlanta metro area under a winter storm warning at 3:38 a.m. Tuesday morning.
The agency warned of 1 to 2 inches of snow accumulation and said it would begin "as early as mid-morning and last into tonight."
CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said Atlanta had plenty of warning.
Myers himself had predicted up to 2 inches of snow would fall.
In reality, just over 2 inches of snow landed in Atlanta.
While that's nothing for most Northern cities, it can be a huge burden for Southern cities not accustomed to it.
Contrast Atlanta's response to New Orleans'. It, too, was hit with snow and ice this week, but it decided to play it safe by closing certain roads.
To be sure, New Orleans responded slowly to the disastrous Hurricane Katrina.
But it's learned to heed warnings.
Georgia's governor said he's also learned from this week.
"We all have some lessons we need to learn here from this," Deal said. "And I think we all will."
It was a common refrain from drivers who sat more than 10 hours on Atlanta roads: where are the salting trucks?
Ashley McCants spent half a day in her car before she gave up, got out and carried her son 2 miles to a stranger's house, where they spent the night.
During those 12 hours, she didn't see a single salting truck or snow plow.
"It was disheartening," McCants said. "I felt like everyone knew this was coming."
She said the amount of snow "was not that horrible."
But "Atlanta was not prepared for it."
While many pointed their fingers at the mayor, Atlanta's only responsible for surface streets in the city.
It's actually the state that's responsible for maintaining interstates -- where much of the gridlock occurred.
The Georgia Department of Transportation commissioner said crews had been deployed farther south, but then scrambled closer to Atlanta as the storm got under way.
But the traffic already choking the roads also blocked salt and sand trucks and snowplows.
Myers, who is originally from Buffalo, New York, said streets there are salted well in advance of a coming storm.
But Atlanta doesn't have the capacity for that kind of treatment.
"We simply have never purchased the amount of equipment necessary," he said. "Why would you in a city that gets one snow event every three years? Why would you buy 500 snowplows and salt trucks and have them sit around for 1,000 days, waiting for the next event?"