Infrastructure & Environment

Atlanta's Leaders Hope to Make Ice Storm Less Awful This Time Around

by | February 13, 2014

By Greg Bluestein and Katie Leslie

Two weeks ago, a wintry blitz that crippled the Southeast's biggest city tarnished the reputations of two of the state's most prominent leaders. As even more severe weather pummels Georgia this week, Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed are taking strides to show they've learned from their mistakes.

The storm and its aftermath present both with another behemoth test of their political careers, one they surely hope will wipe away memories of the error-plagued reaction to the last storm. Deal, facing re-election, and Reed, who many believe will seek higher office, have been dogged by persistent criticism for their role in the January gridlock.

This storm is a rare opportunity to right the wrongs, and the two men have sought to reassure an antsy public with press conferences and photo opps demonstrating a 180-degree turn from two weeks ago.

Deal confidently proclaimed Wednesday that "we are in about as good of shape as we can be" while Reed posted an Atlanta Journal-Constitution photo of himself standing before road crews with the message: "NOT ON MY WATCH."

Deal and Reed, known for a political partnership that crosses party lines, were largely painted with the same brush in the wake of the January storm as they faced a torrent of local and national criticism. It didn't help that as the first snowflakes fell then, the two men were toasting Reed as "Georgian of the Year" at a Ritz-Carlton luncheon.

Deal didn't sign an emergency order until hours after agonizing gridlock had seized the region's highways, and like officials across the region, the two leaders didn't address the public until after 11 that night. By then, tens of thousands were trapped on roads and thousands more in schools.

Neither wanted to risk even a hint of a repeat this week.

Deal signed an emergency order a day before the first drop of icy rain fell. The National Guard was mobilized, shelters were opened, stocks of sand and salt were replenished, and schools were closed. Forecasters helped guide emergency planners, and a new alert system transmitted warnings to cellphone users. Roads weren't choked with panicked drivers because most stayed home or left long before the first wave approached.

Reed, who had more than doubled the city's fleet of snow equipment and amassed one of the area's largest stockpiles of salt since the last storm, urged schools to close and largely shuttered Atlanta City Hall ahead of the wintry blast.

Equally important was the public relations response from the bipartisan duo.

Deal held round after round of press conferences aimed at calming a worried public while urging people to stay off the roads. By Wednesday, he sounded downright optimistic as the worst of the weather approached.

"We are a resilient state. We are a resilient people," Deal said. "And we will bounce back."

Reed issued robocalls asking people to stay home, a message he repeated at his first solo press conference held Wednesday. Empty city streets normally teeming with traffic showed that the warnings paid off.

"Please, please, please don't believe that this is a light incident because of the way it appears," said Reed, who asked Atlantans to defy cabin fever and stay home. "If you view this weather event as a boxing match, last night was the early rounds and we're in the middle of it."

Their very tone has changed from weeks ago, when both seemed stressed and easily agitated in press conferences and interviews.

Reed sparked a mini-drama after striking a defiant attitude in national interviews, and Deal took heat for calling the January snow "unexpected."

This time around, Reed has largely shunned national interviews, sticking instead to visits with local shelters and public works facilities. He's let Deal take the lead, and the governor has appeared quietly confident as he readied for what was expected to be the worst of the storm.

And when Reed did hold his first press event Wednesday, the mayor thanked media for helping spread the message for Atlantans to stay home and praised the work of the city's first responders and road crews. But when asked to measure the city's success thus far, he declined, noting the region is just halfway through the storm.

"I just want to make sure that when this is all over sometime Friday, we did everything in our power to prevent somebody from being harmed," he said.

Even the men's fiercest critics acknowledge the contrast is undeniable, and they gave Reed and Deal begrudging kudos for their response. But the cautious optimism could yet be tempered by a wave of power outages as the storm churns eastward.

State schools Superintendent John Barge, who is challenging Deal in the GOP primary, blasted the governor for waiting hours after federal forecasters upgraded the storm threat on Jan. 28. This week, Barge said the detailed information that Deal's administration is sending to superintendents has helped.

"I think we see school districts, when supplied with reliable information in advance, typically make the right decision on whether to close," he said. "Responses all around were more appropriate this time."

Fayette County Commission Chairman Steve Brown, who gave the state a failing grade for its response to the last storm, praised the "radically different" reaction to this weather.

"We knew what was going to hit and we knew where it was coming," Brown said. "We've definitely learned a good bit."

(c)2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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