What Atlanta should have learned from Snowpocalypse 2011

Six lessons from the week Atlanta stopped

Remember last week when it snowed and then the world as we know it came to a screeching halt? That was weird, right? Decades from now, we’ll pop in our space-age titanium dentures and hoist obese grandchildren onto our withered, bony knees to tell them about the time when Atlanta stood still because of a few inches of snow and they are just not going to believe it. Mostly because snow won’t be a thing anymore — global warming, am I right? — but still ...

When the sun came up on Monday, Jan. 10, the previous evening’s snowfall was a delightful novelty. The marshmallow world Dean Martin crooned about was ours for the taking — if, that is, we could tolerate the icy temperatures and freezing drizzle.

But after the initial snow day, the novelty wore off. Conditions on many roadways worsened rather than improved as thick sheets of ice made them better suited for Zambonis than SUVs. Airlines canceled thousands of flights out of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Mail delivery ceased. Grocery stores ran out of milk, bread and produce, and some closed their doors altogether. And elected officials reeled as a frustrated public grew increasingly critical of snow-removal efforts on state, county and city thoroughfares, while the most our intrepid new governor did was advise us to “take care” and stick close to home.

So, with the benefit of hindsight, what lessons did we learn from our week of ice-bound hell?

Don’t rely on Mother Nature’s “cooperation”

As early as the previous Thursday, meteorologists were forecasting a snow event, sure, but they also foretold freezing temperatures and sleet in the days to follow. The writing on the wall was that this snowstorm would be more severe than others in recent history — as recently as March ‘09, actually — when higher temperatures in subsequent days allowed for a quick thaw. But even with a prolonged freeze all but guaranteed, the message from state leaders in the days following the storm still sounded like some freaky variation of “Let go and let God.”

On Tuesday night, a sweatshirt-clad Nathan Deal — just a day following his inauguration as governor — addressed the public and said, “The weather has to cooperate in order for us to do what we really need to do. So I would just urge everyone to make sure they take care of themselves, and that they do not put themselves in a position of danger.” Similarly, Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Vance Smith was quoted as saying, “Be patient. There will always be a sunnier day than what we’ve had in the past couple of days.”

While Deal’s comments were interpreted by a few bloggers as an endorsement of personal responsibility, others condemned his every-man-for-himself attitude.

Don’t wait for the state to take care of state routes

Many of Atlanta’s major thoroughfares — Peachtree Street, Piedmont Avenue, Piedmont Road, Northside Drive, Ponce de Leon Avenue, etc. — are state routes, which meant it was GDOT’s job to clear them of snow and ice. But, as GDOT concentrated its resources on clearing the highways, intown roads didn’t get the attention they required and the city had to pick up its slack.

“The City of Atlanta is now working on clearing streets usually maintained by GDOT,” Mayor Kasim Reed announced midweek, “because our citizens deserve and expect results and they don’t care whose responsibility it is.”

From now on, he somewhat pointedly added later, the city will automatically begin work on state routes within city limits without waiting for state approval.

Ten plows aren’t enough

In the future, should a similar snow storm hit and be followed by several days of sleet and freezing temperatures, it’s clear that the 10 pieces of snow removal equipment owned by the city aren’t going to cut the mustard — or the ice, for that matter. Nor will 21, the number the mayor secured through private contractors in advance of the storm. Nor will 58, the number on the road by the following Tuesday night. Nor 81. In the end, clearing Atlanta’s roads of snow and ice necessitated 115 pieces of heavy equipment — plows, salt spreaders, etc. — more than five times what city officials initially predicted would be necessary.

Seriously, though, 10 plows are plenty

Although Atlanta gets substantial snowfall every winter or so, some years the white stuff passes us by. But a storm like last week’s only hits about once a decade. (According to PolitiFact Georgia, there have only been 11 storms in the past 80 years that have spilled four or more inches of snow on Atlanta.)

Still, Snowmageddon so badly traumatized us that even the more fiscally conservative members of Atlanta’s populace have wondered aloud whether the city needs to procure more snow-removal vehicles, expensive equipment that would — let’s be honest — sit around and do little more than rust year after year. Despite the city’s harrowing brush with Arctic climes, Reed says purchasing more equipment isn’t a viable option. In an interview with Fox 5, he said, “I don’t think that buying them is the path. I do believe in contracting with private industry because they have the machines and because they have capable operators.” In the future, the city will, through three private contractors, secure between 40 and 60 pieces of equipment and, according to Reed, will have access to them within hours rather than days.

Fleeing from the press is a really dumb idea

This lesson is, of course, directed specifically toward Smith. 11Alive news aired some hilarious footage of the harried DOT chief running — OK, speed walking — through the halls of the state Capitol to get away from reporter Jeff Hullinger and a cameraman.

Gov. Deal initially said the DOT’s response in the storm’s aftermath was “adequate” and that its overall performance had “worked fairly well.” Just a day later, in an interview with Hullinger, he’d changed his tone: “Any time that you have the kind of long-term inability to move around our roadways, we should not be satisfied with that. And I don’t think anybody can say we’re satisfied.” Still, he said, under the circumstances, the state had done a “fairly good job.”

Few in the public seem to agree with that assessment, and Smith’s efforts to evade the press certainly didn’t make his agency look any better.

We are gigantic wusses

Snowmageddon 2011 was an opportunity to frolic in the snow, to catch up on the ol’ DVR and to have sex in the afternoon when we should have been shoveling the sidewalk. Mostly, though, Atlanta treated it as an opportunity to whine. Yeah, being trapped in the house three days in a row can get kind of boring. Going to the grocery store and not being able to buy bananas or half-and-half is a real bummer. Skinning your knee when you eat ice in a frozen parking lot (based on actual events) is horrifically embarrassing. But, seriously, we only have to deal with this roughly once every 15 years. Next time, let’s try harder to grin and bear it, shall we?