Georgia officials under fire over snowstorm response


People rest at the aisle of a Publix grocery store after being stranded due to a snowstorm in Atlanta, Jan. 29, 2014. A rare winter storm gripped the U.S. South on Wednesday, killing five people, stranding children overnight at their schools, gnarling traffic across many states and canceling flights at the world’s busiest airport. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)

The National Weather Service saw it coming. The Weather Channel did too. Governors in nearby states declared states of emergency even before the winter storm slamming the South dropped the first flurry.

But while Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (D) insisted they planned for the storm, the state’s largest metropolitan area was hit hard by the rare Southern storm, which, on Tuesday, dropped up to two inches of snow and ice on an area stretching from the Carolinas to Louisiana.

As a result, commuters waited on freeways for hours, school children slept in gymnasiums, and those stuck downtown slept in the aisles in at least one CVS Pharmacy.

Early Tuesday, Reed tweeted that the city was ready for the impending storm. But late Tuesday night, Deal — with Reed standing beside him — said the region had been caught unprepared.

“We have been confronted with an unexpected storm that has hit the metropolitan Atlanta area,” Deal said in a late-night news conference.

Deal and Reed are coming under fire for the delayed response, which weather experts said should have been faster given the warnings.

“They could be prepared. The mayor and the governor got on TV yesterday and said ‘Oh, this wasn’t expected.’ And that’s not true. I mean, we were talking about this Monday, that this was going to happen. They took a gamble. They didn’t want to pre-treat the roads. I don’t think they wanted to spend the money,” Al Roker said on NBC’s “Today Show.” “This was poor planning on the mayor’s part and the governor’s part, pure and simple.”

While Deal spoke Tuesday night, commuters waited in traffic jams that lasted for hours on Interstates 75, 85 and 285. Around midnight, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta Public School system said at least 50 children were still aboard buses trying to get home.

“I just finished listening to ‘The Hunger Games’ audible book, played all my lives on Candy Crush, met 10 people in various cars and watched the same policeman save four people,” area resident Candace Bazemore told the Atlanta Journal Constitution in an e-mail.

Deal declared a liberal leave day for state employees on Tuesday, but his administration waited until after 5 p.m. to declare a state of emergency, well after the worst of the traffic snarls had begun to develop.

At a news conference late Tuesday, Reed said not closing schools early was an error.

“Government, schools and business[es] closing at the same time and releasing everybody out into the city was a mistake,” Reed said. “I’m not going to get into the blame game, but the crisis that we are going through is across the region. If you look at anybody’s street in any community across the entire region, there’s no one doing a better job than we are in the City of Atlanta.”

In an interview Wednesday morning on CNN, Reed clashed with host Carol Costello over his response to the storm, especially the decision not to close the city’s school district.

“Let me say this: if you’re being fair, you would point out that the Atlanta public school system makes the call on when the system is closed,” Reed said. “You ought to be fair with the interview.”

Deal, who is running for reelection this year, and Reed, who just won reelection to his second term, should be wary of their response: Botching the handling of a major snowstorm has claimed political careers before. Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic lost reelection in 1979 after a series of snowstorms buried his city. Denver Mayor Bill McNichols suffered the same fate in 1983. So did Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who lost reelection in 2009.

Both New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie came under fire after a 2010 snowstorm hit the Northeast over the Christmas holiday. Christie was on vacation with his wife and children in Florida at the time; Bloomberg, it came out a few weeks later, was spending the holiday in Bermuda.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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