Urban

Snowstorm Freezes Atlanta, Strands Students and Drivers

by | January 29, 2014
Cars that were abandoned Tuesday still remain off an Interstate 285 exit in Dunwoody, Ga., early Wednesday.
Cars that were abandoned Tuesday still remain off an Interstate 285 exit in Dunwoody, Ga., early Wednesday. AP/Branden Camp

By Greg Bluestein and Katie Leslie

Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, political partners who have helped shape the state's agenda, sought to calm infuriated residents as they confronted a snowstorm that brought metro Atlanta to a standstill and laid bare flaws in the government's response.

Speaking at a late-night press conference, Deal ordered state government shut down Wednesday and urged drivers to stay off the roads paralyzed by snow, portraying the weather as an "unexpected storm" that developed so quickly amid changing forecasts that officials struggled to respond.

And Reed promised transparency while also urging motorists to stay home and let emergency crews respond to stranded drivers. Road crews will treat icy highways and snow-covered streets throughout the night, he said.

Both politicians said they had learned valuable lessons from the 2011 ice storm that brought metro Atlanta to its knees, and that closer coordination and more resources have prevented the gridlock from becoming worse.

"There are certain things we don't have control over and one of those is the weather. This came rather unexpectedly. The time frame in which it hit was a very short time frame," said Deal. "And I think we're better prepared now than we were in 2011."

Still, to many who had endured the gridlock, the words rang hollow.

Thousands of motorists were trapped on clogged streets deep into the night, turning minutes-long commutes into hours-long affairs. The traffic jams in the storm's wake also left students stuck in school buses and classrooms across metro Atlanta, and Deal said he's dispatched state troopers to schools to help.

Atlanta's mayor, dealing with his second major weather crisis since taking office in 2009, quickly addressed what he saw as the region's greatest failing: timing.

"The fact of the matter is we do take responsibility for having the business community, government and schools basically leave all at once," he said. "We created a situation from a traffic standpoint that was very challenging."

And remains so. More than 12 hours after the storm began to drop snow on metro Atlanta, maintenance crews and emergency responders still couldn't get passed many clogged streets to clear accidents, rescue stranded motorists and cover icy streets with gravel and salt.

Reed and Deal said getting motorists off the road and home is their top priority, but state officials said they were still trying to determine just how many students were stranded on buses and at schools across the region.

Still, Reed said the response was far better than it was during the 2011 storm. He said crews already had about 70 pieces of equipment on the road -- more than first-responders had at the same stage in 2011. And he noted no fatalities had been reported and that entrances to hospitals and fire stations were clear.

"We are coordinating our resources much better than we did in 2011 and we're going to be out of this much faster as a result," said Reed.

The governor urged drivers to stay off the streets as ice that's melting will re-freeze amid plunging temperatures, causing more traffic headaches on Wednesday. He said the National Guard is working to extract "fragile" motorists.

The public's reaction to the storm and its handling has been constant and intense throughout the day, surging in the late-night hours with criticism during the leaders' press conference. Whitney Dozier, a teacher, tweeted that she was frustrated that Deal, Reed and other local officials "let us down once AGAIN." Another Twitter user, who writes from the account @warpedelf, said local and state officials "Failed to be prepared" and that the transportation department's workers "need a public spanking." Atlantan Kevin Kiernan, who tweets from an eponymous handle, simply wrote this to the Twitterverse late Tuesday: "Embarrassed for my city."

Deal, though, pleaded for patience as crews work to unclog roads and stranded commuters slowly make their ways home. "It is not a simple solution," Deal said. "I wish we could just wave a magic wand but we have to deal with reality."

(c)2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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