Four lessons Georgia learned about snowstorms

Ben Gray/AP - Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, center, opens an Emergency Operations Command briefing Wednesday morning in Atlanta, with praise for how agencies were handling the winter storm that moved into Georgia overnight.

Two weeks ago, the state of Georgia massively bungled its response to a snowstorm — with everyone, from the governor down to average commuters, doing something dumb to contribute. The result was a massive citywide traffic jam in Atlanta, with school buses unable to deliver children to their parents, and some commuters needing 22 hours to get home.

On Tuesday, as another storm swept over the state, people in Georgia seemed to have learned their lesson.

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But, in other parts of the South, other cities and other commuters seemed determined to repeat Atlanta’s mistakes.

Lesson No. 1: Keep people off the roads. With fear, if necessary.

In Georgia — this time — government officials issued dire, repeated warnings telling people to get where they needed to be. Their cause was helped by the National Weather Service, which warned that the storm would be “catastrophic . . . crippling . . . paralyzing . . . choose your adjective.”

“From early afternoon on, please stay off the roads if at all possible so that we limit traffic and make way for workers to treat the highways,” Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) warned people over the weekend. Deal also gave an early warning to tractor-trailers to stay away from Atlanta’s freeways, after jackknifed and stranded trucks caused many of the worst problems in the previous storm.

There, it worked: The roads were almost empty in Atlanta. Unfortunately, people in North Carolina didn’t seem to have learned Atlanta’s lesson.

State officials there had warned people to be careful as the storm approached.

“Stay smart. Don’t put your stupid hat on,” Gov. Pat McGrory (R) said.

But, for some people, that instruction apparently wasn’t specific enough.

In Raleigh, many people went to work, and then headed home into the growing storm. The result was a repeat of Atlanta’s mess: cars stranded in snowbanks and at the bottom of icy hills. On Twitter, one photo showed a group of stuck cars on a major road, with one on fire.

“Raleigh does a Snowpocalypse even crazier than Atlanta,” wrote Sean Breslin, an editor at Weather.com, as he posted the photo on Twitter.

In Raleigh-Durham, a local news station told the story of Soo Keith, who left work in Raleigh a little after noon thinking she would have plenty of time to get home before the worst of the snow hit. She drove until she abandoned her car. Then she walked. The whole trip took four hours.

“She compared her journey to the blizzard scene from ‘Dr. Zhivago,’ ” the station reported.

“My face is all frozen, my glasses are all frozen, my hair is all frozen,” said Keith, a 48-year-old mother of two. “I moved here from Chicago. I know how to drive in the snow. But this storm came on suddenly, and everyone was leaving work at the same time. And there aren’t enough plows.”

Lesson No. 2: Salt the roads. Beforehand.

The last time around, one of Georgia’s big missteps was that it didn’t send enough salt trucks and plows to Atlanta until the storm — and the traffic — had already begun. The trucks then got stuck in the same snowy jam they were supposed to be preventing. The result: more snow on the roads, more jam.

This time, both the state and the city got trucks out early to pretreat roads. Officials said more than 3,000 tons of de-icing material was spread on the state’s highways before the storm began.

Lesson No. 3: Close the schools early.

This is never an easy decision. If you close schools, and then the snowstorm is a bust, you’ve got a lot of unhappy parents who’ve been forced to stay home from work. But last month, Atlanta demonstrated the risk of keeping schools open as a storm approaches. Many districts opened on the morning the storm hit but then released children early as the snow piled up.

The result was more traffic, in a city that already had too much. School buses got stuck in the ice. Parents got stuck in traffic heading toward schools. Hundreds of children wound up spending the night inside school gyms — and, in one case, a Kroger grocery store near where their bus was stuck.

This time, Atlanta-area schools announced Tuesday’s closures on Monday.

Lesson No. 4: If you’re in charge, go on television and act like it.

This would seem like the first lesson of being a governor or mayor. When there’s a disaster, you put on something casual but commanding — a State Police polo shirt, say, or a fleece with “Governor” written on it — and you go on television and act like you’re in charge. But last time, Georgia’s leaders did it wrong. When the first storm hit, the Associated Press reported, Georgia’s governor and mayor were both at an awards luncheon where Mayor Kasim Reed was named a magazine’s 2014 “Georgian of the Year.”

Reed had just tweeted: “Atlanta, we are ready for the snow.”

That’s bad, for two reasons. First, this is not a time when a tweet is enough. Second, Reed was wrong: They weren’t ready.

This time, the state and city governments really were ready. And Reed and Deal had also figured out how to act ready, issuing dire warnings about how bad the storm would be.

Of course, nobody in Georgia handled the public-relations side of the storm better than the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office, to the east of Atlanta. As local residents were dealing with the storm’s aftermath Tuesday, the sheriff was showing remarkable initiative — thinking of ways to make lives easier for the rest of a cold, slushy week.

“The Oconee County County Sheriffs Office announces that Valentines Day has been CANCELED from a line North of I-16 to the Georgia/Tennessee border,” the department wrote on its Facebook page Tuesday. “Men who live in the designated ‘NO VALENTINES DAY ZONE’ are exempt from having to run out and buy lottery scratchers and Hershey bars from the corner stores until February 18, 2014, due to ice, snow, freezing rain.”

 
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