Eager to Avoid Further Criticism, Georgia Governor Creates Weather Task Force

by | February 5, 2014 AT 2:00 PM

By Greg Bluestein

Gov. Nathan Deal sought Monday to head off a storm of criticism by creating a new statewide weather alert system and appointing a task force charged with drafting plans to ensure that the next snowfall won't hopelessly paralyze metro Atlanta.

The governor also said he stood by the leadership of the state's emergency management agency, whose head, Charley English, came under fire for a lackluster response to the icy gridlock that turned minutes-long commutes into hours of agony for commuters across the region.

"We're not looking backward. We're looking forward. What can we do in the future to avoid situations such as the one that occurred?" Deal said. "We're going to be as prepared as we can for the next storm."

The 32-member task force includes meteorologists from Atlanta's four major broadcast stations, school administrators, law enforcement officials and business leaders. English and several other high-ranking officials will be on the task force, which would report its recommendations within two months. A separate internal review will be completed by next week.

Critics of the government's response panned Deal's announcement Monday as a half measure that does little to assure antsy residents that the region can handle a more significant weather emergency. They noted that Deal offered similar assurances about a 2011 ice storm that crippled metro Atlanta as he took office.

"We don't want this to become a whitewash, and we don't want the governor to forget what led us here: The governor failed to notify citizens that this storm had the potential to cause serious problems," said state Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker.

The governor is the target of criticism for his actions in the run-up to last week's storms. Deal said he was not notified until hours after federal forecasters had upgraded the winter weather warning at 3:30 a.m. last Tuesday. By the time he signed an order giving department heads leeway to allow employees to work from home, many were already in their offices.

Shortly before the storm hit, Deal stuck to a schedule that included photo opps, legislative meetings and a noon awards banquet at a nearby Ritz-Carlton hotel. The first snowflakes fell while he was at the luncheon, triggering the near-simultaneous release of school students, private-sector workers and public employees that created a traffic mess.

Deal sought to portray himself as someone who has wholeheartedly learned another cruel lesson from winter weather. The governor's actions, coming less than a week after an epic traffic jam, also reflect concern from Deal's camp about him being painted by political rivals as he seeks re-election as an absent-minded politician who failed to prepare for snow forecast days in advance.

The governor said the state would immediately activate a storm warning system modeled after the "Amber Alerts" used for missing children that would trigger a message to cellphones of drivers near troubled areas to advise against driving. And he instructed programmers to overhaul the state's emergency app, which many drivers found to be useless, to include must-have details such as alternate routes and shelter information.

He also ordered state officials to send school superintendents weather updates so they have better information at their disposal. And emergency officials were also told to consult with forecasters from local TV stations on tips to upgrade weather modeling predictions.

The task force has challenges ahead. Deal ordered the group to examine the way the state gathers and uses weather predictions as well as investigate ways to improve coordination across the hodgepodge of government agencies that overlap across metro Atlanta. But it is unlikely to tackle the broader infrastructure issues that plague Atlanta.

The group, headed by state Chief Operating Officer Bart Gobeil, came together so hastily that four of its members had yet to confirm they could join. It includes four legislators, three local superintendents and several high-ranking local executives. The heads of Georgia's Transportation, Natural Resources and Public Safety departments are also on board.

Left off the list were other statewide elected officials, including state Schools Superintendent John Barge, who is challenging the governor in the GOP primary and has ridiculed Deal's storm response.

The group will be holding the first of its public meetings this month. That English would be involved in the task force came somewhat as a surprise, given his public apologies for mishandling the preparations for the storm. He told a national TV audience he was sorry for failing to awaken Deal on Tuesday as the storm grew worse and for opening his command center hours too late.

"He openly acknowledged he made a mistake," Deal said when asked whether he was still confident in English's leadership. "I think that most of us in our lives have made a mistake. Probably not as obvious as maybe this one. But he is conducting himself as I would expect him."

Deal's political rivals have said the governor's response was an abject failure in leadership and have used the gridlock to press for a revival in a debate over transportation funding. State Sen. Steve Thompson, a Marietta Democrat who is on the task force, said the state is decades behind in infrastructure funding.

"I understand they tried to blame everyone in the world," Thompson said. "But mass transit could help."

Deal said he expects to pour in new funds to meet the task force's recommendations. But he derided a renewed debate about state funding of mass transit as a mere "talking point" for critics.

"The reality is it would not have caused us to have fewer single-occupant vehicles on the day in question," he said.

(c)2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution