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Atlanta Gambled With Winter Storm and Lost 723

Posted by timothy
from the snowball's-chance dept.
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Kim Severson reports at the NYT that by keeping schools and government offices open, and by not requiring tractor-trailers to use chains or stay out of the city's core, metropolitan Atlanta gambled and lost. "We don't want to be accused of crying wolf," said Gov. Nathan Deal, who pointed out that the storm had been forecast to just brush the south side of the city. If the city had been closed and the storm had been as light as some forecasters had told him it was going to be, he said, money would have been lost, and people would have complained. Tuesday's snowfall, that brought only 2-3 inches of snow to most of the Atlanta metro area, 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. Some commuters were stuck in their vehicles up to 18 hours after they first hit the roads. Others 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. "It's an easy joke made by Northerners," wrote Joe Sterling and Sarah Aarthun. "A dusting of snow shuts down an entire city and hapless drivers white-knuckle their way through a handful of flurries." Further North streets 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," said meteorologist Chad Myers adding Atlanta had plenty of warning. "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?""
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Atlanta Gambled With Winter Storm and Lost

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  • Re:Pffft (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Greyfox (87712) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @08:58AM (#46109169) Homepage Journal
    That's what they SHOULD have done. You may not be prepared for your one snow event every three years, but if you're not, you fucking shut your city down when the forecast calls for 2 inches! If that costs more than keeping that fleet of 500 vehicles and stockpile of magnesium chloride on hand, then maybe you should be better prepared the next time it happens!
  • by jellomizer (103300) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @09:00AM (#46109187)

    Ok granted Atlanta dropped the ball. But the drivers are being complete idiots. Probably due to poor basic science education.
    Yes the road are unsalted. and most of the cars have summer tires... However to be dead stopped for days is just retarded.
    Boadcast these instructions over the radio.

    1. Keep Calm, don't panic.
    2. Accelerate Slowly
    3. Decelerate Slowly
    4. Drive Slowly
    5. Double or Triple your distance that you normally are between you and the car in font of you, to allow more time to stop.

    I am seeing on the news complete idiots just hitting the gas spinning their wheels and driving out of control. The it is a Gas Pedal not a Gas Button, you can use it to drive at various speeds.

  • Borrow from where? All of the other cities in the area that also don't generally suffer snowstorms? More northerly cities that are probably busy using their equipment, thank you very much?
  • My experience (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Nidi62 (1525137) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @09:09AM (#46109289)
    I live 20 minutes north of the city, and work at the airport south of the city. It started snowing at my apartment at 9:30 am Tuesday. I was stuck at work tuesday night, worked all day wed, got put up in a hotel by my company wed night, and am working all day today before I go home tonight at my regular work time. No one here with any sense is really mad that we didn't have enough equipment: we can't justify spending millions of dollars in equipment for something that happens so rarely. The biggest issue was they did not close the schools on Tuesday. Businesses started letting people leave early afternoon because the weather was starting to get bad. Then schools closed early and everyone with kids had to leave as well. We literally had probably 85-90% of the commuting workforce on the road at the same time, and 2 of our major highways-I-75 and I-85-are actually the same road through downtown Atlanta. If schools had been closed on Tuesday, a lot of people would have stayed home, and traffic would have been very manageable. Also, considering the fact that these events are so rare, the government should have started treating roads as early as Monday night. They predicted that it would hit the south side. If they had treated the south side monday night, they could have recovered and treated the north side tuesday morning when they realized it would hit the north side hardest.

    As a side note, snow in Atlanta usually falls as large wet clumps that are already melting. This week was the first time in decades where Atlanta has gotten true, powder snow. So a lot of people here have no idea how to drive in this weather, and it only takes a handful of cars not being able to make it up a hill or hitting an ice patch to shut down an entire interstate.

  • by DamnRogue (731140) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @09:22AM (#46109435)

    I live in Atlanta but grew up in Boston. I fully agree that southerners can't drive in the snow. Your advice is good. However, it is also totally useless for what happened here.

    People were stuck in their cars because a million vehicles tried to exit a ten square mile area simultaneously. It was instant gridlock. Proper acceleration technique means nothing if there is nowhere to go. Once the inevitable handful of accidents occurred, even the lucky folks that were on the front of the traffic wave couldn't get anywhere.

  • by NoImNotNineVolt (832851) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @09:24AM (#46109463) Homepage
    I'm currently down in Georgia on work-related travel. I'm in Columbus, but (hopefully) will by flying out of Atlanta later today. I've been here all week. I live in New Jersey.

    Yesterday morning, I experienced perhaps the most dangerous driving conditions I've ever seen, and I've lived in Maine. What most people don't understand is that places that handle this type of weather regularly are prepared for it. I've been told that there are eight salt-spreading trucks in Georgia. Eight, for the entire state. How the fuck were they supposed to prepare? Purchase more snow management equipment on short notice? Maintain a large fleet of trucks for the rare occasions that stuff like this happens?

    When I was driving in to work yesterday, the roads were nearly deserted. The few cars that were on the road were flying all over the place. While it's possible to drive [relatively] safely in such conditions, it's a skill that I don't expect Georgians to have. This just doesn't happen that often down here.

    The roads were entirely covered in a solid sheet of ice. Ice, with no road salt, no gravel, no sand. If you live in an area that regularly receives some snowfall, you've never driven on anything quite like this, because you've got snow crews prepping roads before the snowfall, plowing for the duration of the snowfall, and then conditioning the road surfaces after the snowfall. Georgia has none of that. After having experienced this shit for myself, as a "yankee", all I can say is that I will never again make light of how the south "shuts down" for what I would consider to be mild flurries. Without any of the snow management gear, mild flurries (followed by a deep freeze) make for some truly horrendous driving conditions.
  • Re:Pffft (Score:5, Insightful)

    by The Mighty Buzzard (878441) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @09:25AM (#46109475)

    Why? 2-3 inches here and the only things we do different are leave earlier and drive slower. No chains. No pre-salting the roads. Just slow the fuck down until the roads get plowed or melt.

  • by NoImNotNineVolt (832851) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @09:31AM (#46109569) Homepage
    Bull. Shit.

    I'm a northerner down here on work travel. Your advice is a serious fail. Good luck making it up even the slightest hill if you "drive slowly". Good luck not sliding into the gutter on any banked road if you "drive slowly".

    You've never driven on unconditioned roadways after a snowfall. You're used to grippy snow, or slushy ice. You have a large fleet of snow management vehicles that make sure your roads are safe to drive on when it snows. There was none of that down here. The roads were a sheet of ice. A sheet of unconditioned ice. No salt, no gravel, no sand. Just solid ice. Not patches of ice, but a good solid sheet of ice, curb to curb.

    I myself was laughing about how the whole state of Georgia entirely shut down for what I consider to be a mild flurry. Then I drove to work. While the indigenous drivers didn't come across as well-prepared or skilled ice drivers, I can honestly say that to blame them is wrong. The roads really were unbelievably shitty, possibly worse than anything I have ever driven in. And I've lived in Maine and have driven through blizzard-like conditions in Canada on many occasions.
  • Re:Pffft (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bunratty (545641) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @09:41AM (#46109731)
    Surely they knew there was a significant probability for the snow to hit Atlanta. You don't have to make 100% accurate predictions to be able to prepare for the future. That's why weather forecasts give a probability of precipitation, rather than a binary rain/no rain prediction. If you know rain is likely, you can carry your umbrella just in case. The attitude should not be "You need to prove something bad will happen before I prepare for it," but rather "Let me know if something bad might happen so I can prepare for it."
  • Re:Pffft (Score:1, Insightful)

    by captainpanic (1173915) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @09:47AM (#46109819)

    The actual problem is that the weather forecast is unreliable. In comparison to much of the EU, the weather forecast in the USA (not just Atlanta) is rather poor.
    The National Weather Service (that's the US weather prediction) has no funds, and old computers. Their predictions just don't have sufficient resolution. That's not just a problem with snow, or other weather-related disasters... It is a problem every day.

    Source:
    http://news.nationalgeographic... [nationalgeographic.com]

  • by ClayDowling (629804) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @09:55AM (#46109937) Homepage

    We get black ice on the highways here in Michigan all the time. The difference is that we don't panic. My truck loses its grip, I quickly stop doing the thing that made it lose its grip. If heavy snow starts, we don't all rush out into the streets at once. We tend to stagger our leave so that traffic has a chance to clear, and we have a chance to not be in the worst of it. We check road conditions before heading out. I've driven across multiple states during ice storms and blizzards without problem, and without plows or salt trucks providing any relief.

    A million salt trucks wouldn't have saved Atlanta. The key is keeping your head and knowing what to do. Everybody in Atlanta buried their heads in the predicted snow, pretending it wouldn't happen, then lost their heads when it did. Their emergency management response was poor to non existant, and they paid the price. They're going to need a leadership change if they don't want this to happen again.

  • Re:Pffft (Score:5, Insightful)

    by njnnja (2833511) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @10:05AM (#46110055)

    Exactly. maybe every three years is too infrequent to have 500 snowplows ready, but that's a false dichotomy [wikipedia.org]. The choice isn't between having 500 snowplows and turning into a disaster move every 3 years; surely there is a middle ground where you have an action plan that takes into effect when snow *might* hit the area (e.g. position resources so they can react quickly, and get you DPW personnel in their trucks and pay them overtime), and an action plan that goes into effect once the snow starts falling (do schools shut down? send kids home? shelter in place? What about police? Firefighters? What do you ask private business to do? And most importantly, what's the plan with the DPW?). Proper planning and intelligent deployment of resources is cheap (relatively speaking) but requires local authorities to think about more than just, "how do I get my brother in law a six figure do-nothing job" or "How do I accept that cheap mortgage as a gift without running afoul of bribery and corruption laws." But to claim that this is to be expected in a first world nation every 1000 days because you don't want to staff up like they do in the northeast is irresponsible

  • by NoImNotNineVolt (832851) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @10:11AM (#46110129) Homepage
    This wasn't black ice. It was a solid sheet of ice, curb to curb, sitting on every paved surface in the area. Without a single grain of salt, sand, or gravel sitting on top. Without a single gap of cleared road surface peeking through. If you've seen conditions like that in Michigan, you guys have the shittiest snow management system in the country, because unlike Georgia, you should be prepared.
  • by unimacs (597299) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @10:28AM (#46110325)
    hmmm. I've lived in the Minneapolis area for close to 50 years and I'm tempted to call BS on this one, - at least partly. The first snowfall of the year does lead to more spinouts and traffic delays than usual because at least some people have forgotten how to drive in that kind of weather.

    But "panic reigns"?

    Uh no

    If you lived in Minneapolis proper you'd know that in residential areas (outside of snow emergency routes) you may not even see a plow for that small amount of snow. Most streets within a mile of our house have had layers of compacted snow and ice on them for weeks. Yes it is dryer here on the whole but we get plenty of days with precip when the temp is hovering around freezing. It is quite common to go from rain, to freezing rain, then to snow and have the whole mess freeze over.

    My guess is that a big reason you find it easier to get here around in winter is that the other drivers know what they are doing. But the other reason is that city has the equipment and know how to deal with snow and ice.
  • Re:Pffft (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ShaunC (203807) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @11:20AM (#46111023)

    NOAA/NWS may be underfunded, but they do an absolutely outstanding job. They are the only government agency that I trust, implicitly, up to and including with my life (I live in "tornado alley"). NOAA/NWS has no political bent, they use real science to make increasingly more accurate forecasts, and better products come out almost every year. Huge portions of the US population and economy rely upon NOAA/NWS, not the least of which being every single person in an aircraft at any given time, from airline transport pilot all the way down to cropdusters - and of course the passengers.

    You can insult my government all day, every day; I do it too. But don't question the ability of NOAA/NWS.

  • by benro03 (153441) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @11:23AM (#46111065)

    I was in Marietta (west side) at a dental appointment when it started to hit at about 11:00. Just flurries at first, but by 11:30 when I left it was starting to come down so I headed for home in Tucker on the east side. By 12, I made the decision to jettison my other errands and make a quick stop at the post office at Northlake then go across the street to pick up my contacts at my eye doctors. Just after I left there at 12:30 I got an email from my son's teacher letting us know that school was closing early.

    By then, it was really coming down, but the major danger at that time were the people slowing down "just because". Traffic started to snarl as I picked my son up at his school and headed straight home. I began reading the horror stories of people stranded in cars on the freeway, kids trapped at schools because the parents didn't get the message until too late, school buses diverting from their normal routes and heading to the nearest school to pick up kids and get them home ASAP. Home Depot stores all over Atlanta opened their doors to people stranded and gave them a warm place to sleep.

    Yes, the city and state government should have cancelled school and closed everything down to emergency services. They didn't and the Atlanta mayor and Governor Deal will pay politically for that. They had warning enough from the local meteorologists that have decades of experience in forecasting winter weather in Atlanta and they chose to ignore it (and later lie about knowing). Parents could have made the decision to keep kids at home.

    Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

    And now I see "experts" from all over pontificating about how "we should buy more plows and salt trucks", "how stupid Southerners are because we don't know how to drive in the snow", or other inflammatory rhetoric. Here are a few thoughts for those people to chew on.

    "Why weren't you prepared?" - Preparing for a once every 5 year event is not possible. If the mayor of Atlanta (who isn't blameless in this) prepared for Boston levels of snow, he/she would be out of a job *quick*. It's like New York City preparing for a hurricane. (*BURN*)

    "It's only 2-4 inches! I drive in that all the time!" - No you don't. You drive on roads that are prepared CONSTANTLY with salt and gravel, using 4 wheel drive, snow tires or chains. Snow in Atlanta almost immediately melts when it hits the pavement and then turns to ice from the air temperature. ICE people. It's not snow it's ICE.

    "Southerners can't drive on snow!" - Actually, we don't have experience driving on snow and that would hold true if it were only southerners driving here. According to the US Census, Atlanta is the 8th most popular city for to migrate to. In 2010 to 2011, 82 people a day moved to Atlanta, foreign and domestic. I meet far more people from the northern states than I meet other southerners that moved here. I'd guestimate about a third of the people driving yesterday were born somewhere that uses snowplows on a regular basis.

    "You stupid f*ing rednecks!" - Excuse me? Are you talking about the city where anesthesia first came into use (Dr. Crawford Long)? Where the largest beverage company in the world is located (Coke)? Where some of the most technologically advanced aircraft in the world are designed and built (Lockheed)? Where the Center for Disease Control is located? Georgia Tech? Emory University? Morris Brown College? The Carter Center? If that's stupid, I'd love to see what you have to offer.

  • by Gim Tom (716904) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @11:34AM (#46111175)
    I am a rare breed. I was born in Atlanta and lived here much of my life. However, I did live up in the snow belt for several years, and I can assure you that, while I wouldn't think twice about driving in snow in Ohio, I try to avoid it if at all possible here. It IS different. One thing that Atlanta has that most northern snow belt areas lack is an abundance of hills. These do make a difference. Atlanta has always had problems with winter weather, but the other thing about Atlanta and this area in general is that the weather changes very quickly. It was 11 degrees here this morning and this afternoon it may be in the mid 40's. By Sunday the mid 60's are forecast. The cost of providing for extensive snow or ice removal is just not worth it.

    Those not familiar with the region don't understand that Atlanta is in Georgia and those might as well be two different countries. After a 2011 snow event the CITY of Atlanta did invest in snow removal equipment and did have a better plan to deal with it this time. From what I have seen and heard the CITY really did handle it better than it has ever been handled in the past. That said, most of the traffic problems and grid lock seen around the world was NOT on Atlanta city streets, but on Interstate highways and State roads. These thread all though Atlanta and they are maintained EXCLUSIVELY by the State. This is where the politics and incompetence comes in.

    State government here has been on a mission to downsize itself and transform itself into a jobs program for friends of well connected state politicians since about the year 2000 or earlier. The state highway department which is the organization that is responsible for all of the STATE roads, whether in Atlanta or not, has shrunk from over 7,000 employees to just over 4,000 just in the last few years. Many of the departures were by experienced people who left for the private sector or to county and municipal employers who now provide better compensation and benefits than does the State of Georgia. The head of the State Highway department, has traditionally been an engineer with experience. The current head is a political appointee who has no engineering degree and no experience in this area at all. This is just one example, but throughout the state, for well over a decade, there has been an erosion of competence in providing the services that the state is responsible for providing. This is not due to the remaining employees, who do the actual work, but due to poor planing, incompetent management and complete lack of understanding by the elected officials of what is required to run the largest state East of the Mississippi river.
  • Re:Pffft (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Thursday January 30, 2014 @01:15PM (#46112289)

    Why was this even the mayor's call?

    Because he's the boss? The guy in the hotseat? The person they're paying to make decisions?

    The mayor may be advised by his engineering or public safety guys, but, in the end, it's his decision.

    And if he says it's not his decision to make, the wrong guy got elected mayor.

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