Was Atlanta asleep at the wheel?

CNN
Wednesday, January 29, 2014 - 1:59pm

ATLANTA (CNN) -- We're world-class, Greater Atlanta boasts. We're home to the world's busiest airport, to the Braves and Georgia Tech. To CNN and the Weather Channel. We're a mecca for conventioneers.

But today, that solid rep is going south, thanks to the "rush hour from hell."

Snow fell in Atlanta on Tuesday, leaving a couple of inches on the region -- an event that would be a minor inconvenience for communities in the Northern climes. But the white stuff and the icy streets it spawned stirred a panicky community-wide exodus toward home. As night fell, the city's busy interstates became parking lots. It left homebound folks stranded in their cars and anxious kids sheltering in their schools overnight.

How can this happen in and to a world-class region? One answer: It was poor planning and panicky citizens who don't know how to deal with the snow. Another: That's just the price you may have to pay for living in Atlanta, famous for its traffic frustrations. Misleading weather forecasting is another answer.

Insight and mockery abounded on social media.

"This area does seem to suffer from a deficit of leadership and total lack of regional planning," one Facebook poster said. "And terrible drivers," another said on the social media site.

On Twitter, many say they don't understand why Atlantans can't drive in a few inches of snow. One guy on Twitter says, "What you don't realize is that Atlanta doesn't usually get snow so ppl don't know how to drive in it."

Stuck for hours in traffic, Matthew Holcomb, a vice president of engineering at CNN, underscored that point. He wants to know, "what was the plan?"

"I mean two or three weeks ago, the kids were left out of school when it got cold here. Knowing what was coming, I can't believe they didn't have the kids out of school and there wasn't a better plan on the roads.

He said he hasn't seen a snowplow "or anyone slinging sand."

"I've been on the road for over 16 hours now. I've not seen anybody out," he said. "They've done nothing. I have seen literally hundreds of cars parked on the side of the road. I saw a lady carrying her kid in a blanket down the side of the road. I mean, people going the wrong way on major, major interstates. It's scary stuff."

One Facebook post, addressing "Yankees laughing at GA for being shut down by two inches of snow," had an answer for the salt truck issue: The gridlock slowed down the salting.

"At noon, it started snowing. All of the schools, at once, decided to close without any advance notice around 1:30. It was basically, 'Hey, we're closed now! come get your kids!'"

And around the same time, most businesses closed.

"So that's roughly 5 million people who all got on the roads at the same time, which clearly caused a massive traffic jam. Then, while they're out there, the snow gets worse, turns into slush, and then, eventually, full-on sheets of ice. And, while everyone was in gridlock, they couldn't reload the salt trucks because the gridlock was too thick to navigate back to the salt storage areas (we have 30 trucks & 40 plows in ATL proper)," the Facebook post said.

"So the ice situation got worse and worse, until short trips became hours-long and some folks ditched their cars and walked. And, there's a good number of kids and staff spending the night at the schools tonight because there's too much ice for the buses to run safely to take them home."

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed also weighed in. He laid part of the blame on local businesses, saying they contributed to the gridlock by letting workers leave at the same time. When the snow started, he said, with schools and businesses let go at roughly the same time, it was too much for the roads to handle.

"I said immediately yesterday that releasing all of these folks was not the right way to go," Reed told CNN's Carol Costello. "If I had my druthers, we would have staggered the closures."

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said the region was caught off guard by weather predictions.

"Some of the local meteorologists were more correct on their predictions, that the storm center might be 50 miles north of where the National Weather Service's modeling had indicated that it would be," he said.

"The National Weather Service continually had their modeling showing that the city of Atlanta would not be the primary area where the storm would hit, that it would be south of Atlanta. You've already heard some of our agencies saying that based on that modeling, they had not brought in some of the resources earlier because they thought there were going to be other parts of the state that were going to be more severely impacted than the metropolitan Atlanta area."

Yvonne Williams, who works on transportation infrastructure projects in Atlanta, said there needed to be a community-wide coalition of first responders ready to take this on.

"If I were a leader for the day, I'd make sure everyone is organized together, preparing for these kinds of emergencies," she said.

Many Atlantans say there needs to be more mass transit and roads.

Public transit, they say, isn't as wide-ranging as it is in other cities, like New York, or overseas, in London. But a transit tax proposal failed recently. Many people just don't want to spend the money to expand the region's MARTA train system.

Liane Levetan, a former Georgia state senator, is one of the many Atlantans who wants more rail and road modifications. She thinks the gridlock could turn out to be a "godsend."

"We have got to realize that if we don't do something with our transportation system -- light rail, rail, modification of roads. You've got to have more transportation available. We really are a metropolis now," she said.

She points out that bad traffic is an "every day situation" Atlantans endure.

"For us to be forward thinking, maybe this will be the catalyst. We're being pennywise and pound foolish. If we want to be growth leaders, people have got to move around," she said.

John A. Williams, a native Atlantan and CEO of Preferred Apartment Communities, has a decidedly different take. Maybe more can be done to improve transportation in Atlanta, but he's not sure there could be enough money to address a problem like this one.

"Every decade, we have a storm like this," he said. "I'm not sure there could be enough money to spend to solve the problems."

And, he says, traffic is a good thing, a solid indicator of growth. In fact, when you weigh the positives and negatives about Atlanta's sprawl and the tightly-packed populations in many cities, the region has its pluses.

"Atlanta is a city without natural boundaries, Atlanta has grown greatly in every direction, south, north, east and west. Atlanta has a certain amount of sprawl. It is difficult to serve that sprawl with mass transit," he said. "Atlanta is a city of trees and hills. People don't necessarily want to live in Chicago, highly dense urban environments."

For now, people have to drink up an unfamiliar cocktail of Atlanta traffic and southern snow.

"Snow in Atlanta, I couldn't make it to the liquor store," one guy quipped on Facebook. "So we may have to survive on food and water for several days."

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