Atlanta mayor, Ga. gov. face backlash over storm gridlock

Atlanta mayor, Ga. gov. face backlash over storm gridlock

Atlanta mayor, Ga. gov. face backlash over storm gridlock


by NBC News

Posted on January 30, 2014 at 8:02 AM

Updated Thursday, Jan 30 at 8:38 AM

Still littered with abandoned cars, Atlanta struggled to find its way back to normal Thursday while the mayor and governor struggled with the political fallout from a snowstorm that trapped some people in their cars more than 24 hours.

Mayor Kasim Reed assured people on Tuesday, in a message on Twitter before the snow began to fall.



On Thursday, he acknowledged that authorities made a mistake by not staggering their orders for people to go home — schools first, then private businesses, then government employees. Instead, hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the interstates at the same time.

But Reed suggested, in a pair of interviews on NBC’s TODAY and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” that he was being unfairly blamed for traffic that clogged highways outside the city limits.

“I think we need to work much harder on coordination,” he said on MSNBC. But he stressed: “The highways are not the responsibility of the city.”

It was the latest episode of finger-pointing after the storm. On Wednesday, Gov. Nathan Deal infuriated meteorologists by calling the storm “unexpected” and saying that nobody “could have predicted “the degree and magnitude of the problem.”

In fact, the National Weather Service issued a winter storm alert for Atlanta at 3:38 a.m. on Tuesday, 12 hours before the worst of the traffic set in.

On Thursday, with many roads in the Atlanta area still slick with ice, authorities pleaded with people not to risk their safety by trying to retrieve cars that they abandoned during the traffic jam. The Georgia Department of Transportation said it would help people back to their vehicles, but asked them to avoid attempting the journey alone. Schoolchildren across the Atlanta area were home for the day. Thousands of them got stuck in the storm, either marooned at their schools for the night or stuck on buses on the gridlocked interstates.

Cities in the North are much more accustomed to snowstorms, and in places like New York, powerful mayors have the single-handed authority to order salt-spreaders and plows onto the streets.

But the Atlanta area, as frustrated experts pointed out, is a patchwork of regional governments that often don’t get along with each other.

It also has a deeply ingrained car culture and a mass transit system that serves only a fraction of the metro area’s 5.5 million people. In 2012 voters across the region defeated a one-penny sales tax that would have strengthened regional transit.

After a snowstorm hobbled Atlanta in 2011, Reed, the Atlanta mayor, wrote in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he had learned an important lesson about collaboration and cooperation.

“We will work faster and smarter to deliver the kind of response that our residents demand and deserve,” he wrote.

While authorities in the Southeast rarely deal with snowstorms, some of them claimed that they had not been sufficiently warned by meteorologists about this one.

Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society, said in a blog that Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal's claim that the storm was "unexpected" was "wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong."

Only about 2 1/2 inches actually fell on the city of Atlanta, but thousands of drivers were hopelessly stuck for as long as two days, many without food and water.

Deal ordered the National Guard to clear the way for school buses that were carefully delivering schoolchildren back to their homes after thousands of them were marooned overnight. All of them were "home safe and sound" by late Wednesday afternoon, Deal said.

But National Guard troops were still distributing blankets and 200 cases of military-style MREs, or meals ready to eat, to drivers along Interstate 20.

The Georgia DOT said late Wednesday it had already partnered with towing companies to move abandoned vehicles from carriageways and onto hard shoulders. Starting Thursday morning, the department said it would work with Georgia State Patrol and the National Guard to transport people to their vehicles.

The department urged owners to report to one of two “staging sites” in the city, depending on where they left their vehicle. From here they would be transported in four-wheel-drive vehicles. Fuel was available to those who abandoned their cars because they ran out of gas.

“Please use extreme caution around abandoned vehicles. This is particularly important as lanes become passable and an increasing number of people return to the roadsides to move their cars,” the statement said.

Churches, groceries and hardware superstores opened their doors to the stranded. Neighbors took in neighbors and strangers. At least one baby was born in a car, helped by a police officer.

Authorities in Alabama were also left red-faced after declaring a state of emergency only for the southern half of the state, leaving out hard-hit Birmingham and sending available equipment the other way.

Higher temperatures were expected to bring some respite on Thursday. But with some ice and many vehicles still blocking the roads on Thursday morning, the commute would be anything but easy, according to Kevin Roth, lead meteorologist at The Weather Channel.

He said things would get better throughout the day, with temperatures hitting 40 across the region, but he still urged caution.

"Our concern is that places which do not dry off in the sunshine today, perhaps places in the shade, will ice over again," he said.