Thursday, January 30, 2014

Atlanta Shuts down with 3 Inches Snow - What a municipality Should Do Next Storm

Winter Storm Leon Causes Quite  a mess for Atlanta - January 28, 2014
by Scott R. Mayorga

Leon rolled into town on Tuesday January 28, 2014 approximately 12 Noon; Atlanta and the surrounding counties where caught off guard, ill prepared, and rather mis-informed for the snow event.  What Happened?  In a nut shell; thousands of motorists including school children on school buses were snagged in a web of confusion, hysteria, and anarchy for almost two days unable to travel on thousands of miles of roads while emergency vehicles were unable to get to those in critical situations.  Declaration of State of Emergency, activation of prevention measures, storm preparations were all too little and much too late.  Roadways clogged with traffic unable to move on pure ice paved roadways paralyzed the entire region.  There is plenty of blame post this weather event being thrown around and all of it is sticking rightly so to Atlanta and Georgia State Officials.  Winter Storm Leon was a conundrum of confusion exacerbated by lack of leadership, perpetuated by lack of control.

I will refrain from directly blaming anyone - that is counter productive.  I will lay out what I would do in the position of running "Storm Central" for the City of Atlanta and the north Georgia Region.
The Atlanta area receives significant snow accumulation every 2-4 years.  Significant is a relative term of measurement reflecting how bad the City was crippled.  On Jan. 28, 2014 with 3 inches of snow the entire Atlanta urban/suburban region was brought to its knees.  Three inches of snow in Buffalo NY would not be significant at all.  The North Georgia region might be able to muster up a hundred or so pieces of heavy equipment to fight the accumulations.  The City of New York probably has thousands of plows, sand spreaders, and emergency vehicles of some sort.  The City of NY bolts plows onto the front of garbage trucks and plows all day and all night.  In Atlanta, it is not feasible to acquire and maintain hundreds if not thousands of pieces of equipment just for a snow event every two to four years.  That being said, what is a major metro area to do to keep citizens safe.  I would think if you asked most people if they would rather have safety or anarchy- they will pick safety.  Here are my guidelines for those in the position of either acting and leading and also for those who sleep and go out to lunch doing nothing but delegating to others neither willing to do anything or are too inept to accomplish what needs to be done.  Might I digress...

Clearly and concisely asses the weather predictions. Make personal observations and decide on a plan of action at least 24 hours in advance.  The only thing that the weather man can be counted on is an accurate time of arrival of an event.  Whether 1 inch, 2 inch, or 6 inches of snow is predicted;  in the words of our fearless ex-Secretary of State Hillary "What difference Does It Make?"  Decide early what is the plan of action, get folks on the phone, mobilize what can be done well in advance.

Watch our Children. What is most important in our lives? Children right.  So for a significant event or an event that has potential to bring danger close the schools.  This was a tough storm.  The weather modeling computers had conflicts predicting this event even 5 hours before snow started falling.  Obviously, the computer models were ineffective.  Stick you head out the window.  Sniff the air.   Before a snow fall the air is thick, its cold, you can just feel it is going to snow like heck.  Look at the Radar maps.  If you say to yourself "Oh My God It's Coming Right For Us" then close the schools.

Declaration  of State of Emergency is important in many ways.  "Procedures may already be in place" but the declaration makes people take notice.  How many Atlanta workers were told to go home after the roadways were already jammed up at 12:45 PM?  A declaration early on even if premature would have given workers a heads up early and been given the chance to get rolling before icy conditions.  The declaration was not made until 3 PM or so which was some three hours after all the major arteries were dangerously clogged with vehicles that could not move.

Control flow of traffic - Trucks large and small were a major contributing factor to the mess that became of Leon.  Decades ago, I-285 "The Perimeter" was built so that trucks and other vehicles that had no business inside the perimeter could avoid the downtown areas by detouring onto the perimeter.  In a State of Emergency, I would have positioned GA State Patrol (GSP) on the roads to make sure all trucks either turn away from the city or detour onto the perimeter.  Any trucks that go inside the perimeter would be subject to stiff fine of $10,000 USD.  I know the GA States DOT Commissioner would cringe at that idea but that is how you control the situation.  Below is a map of the Atlanta major arteries.  The stars are where GSP would stage and direct trucks onto the perimeter.  Any trucks ignoring directions of troopers and the hundreds of overhead electronic interactive signage would be rounded up in the City and vehicles would be impounded.  Sounds harsh?  Too bad.  It is a State of Emergency.  It Doesn't mean go sell Girl Scout cookies in front of Walmart!

Map by Scott R Mayorga

Most importantly, open up HOT lanes and HOV lanes of traffic. Why restrict travel lanes during a State of Emergency.  That is just moronic.  Get the vehicles off the road as efficiently as possible, Period.

Mobilize the GSP and salt spreaders before the precipitation starts.  If a salt truck rolls by your brand new car and sprays your quarter panel with rock salt - Oh Well.  Get out of the way.  If that happens you are probably not paying attention, talking on the phone, or almost asleep at the wheel.  During the Leon event way into evening hours cars were paralyzed unable to move.  Opposite lanes-predominantly northbound were mostly devoid of vehicles.  GSP could set up those lanes of highways to allow vehicles to travel north in the empty southbound lanes.  Possibly, under escort of National Guard even?  What about that National Guard.  What are they good at? There expertise is moving people and equipment rapidly and efficiently.  How about some porta-toilets?  Hey what a great idea.  Mobilize the National Guard with porta-potties onto the roads in the event that things go bad.  There are plenty of privately owned salt/sand spreader trucks that could be mobilized by the city as a one day contract. I would use them.  A big problem was that salting was not done before the snow fell.  After accumulations snarled traffic to a stand-still the decision to mobilize salt spreaders was too late.  Is this not obvious? 

And now the big one - Weather Services and the fickle weatherman.  Stop relying on the computer models.  Get away from the screen and stick your head out the window.  Predict as you were trained to do.  Tuesday morning, the radio forecast for the weather that day was obviously turmoiled with confusion, uncertainty, and capped off with a fickle statement of "Stay Tuned for updated information".  Well that was just 3 hours before the snow started falling.  I saw the radar maps the night before and knew there was going to be some precipitation.  When I went outside that morning I could feel that "It's Going to Snow Feeling" in the air.  It is the weather.  Predictions are just that - Ones opinion about what the weather is going to bring.  Tuesday morning the term "Dusting" was used more than once in the weather reports at 8 AM EST.  That obviously told most people the event was not serious.  On top of School buses running children to school, and the lack of leadership and guidance from elected officials, a total lackadaisical state of wait and see prevailed.  Well wait and see went well beyond the first flakes and even further past jammed up roads.  How about some reminders reported with the weather report?  Reminders? What a novel idea!
If you must travel in the face of danger:
  • Pack extra clothing
  • Pack some food and water
  • Pack your medication
  • Pack a blanket
  • Make sure you have a cell phone charger and money in your wallet
  • How about some salt, kitty litter, or sand
  • A small shovel? Maybe.
  • A weapon of self protection - most definitely

Think before you embark.

The tragedy of the whole event that has become Winter Storm Leon was that people trapped on roadways in vehicles engines running until fuel tanks were empty had no food, no water, no medication, and no bathrooms.  Worse yet were the school children trapped inside school buses for 10-14 hours.  The children stuck at schools sleeping in the gym had fun.  I know my kids had plenty of sleep overs.  Thank goodness the teachers were able to handle the situation.  There were no tragedies at the schools so I can only imagine the kids and the teachers made the best of it and raided the cafeteria for snacks and drinks.  Probably the only leadership exhibited during the Storm and aftermath was by the teachers who cared for and supervised the children at the schools - Bravo!

Folks, have some common sense.  My work colleagues and family members all have stories about the storm and the mayhem that ensued.  Teleworkers had the best of the day or two.  Working from home was the best idea.  Then there were the workers who left too late in the afternoon.  Drivers stuck in the snarl for 8-10-16 hours.  A ride home from work only 10 miles distance took some half a day to complete.  Some never made it home that evening.  Some were stuck without necessary medication.

Inadequate warning, poor leadership, slow action, and complete lack of crucial action all came together to make Winter Storm Leon a catastrophe that will be remembered for decades to come.  Atlanta has become a the butt of numerous jokes not because of three inches of snow - because poor leadership made a situation so much worse than it had to be.  Lack of action allowed the severity of the impacts to elevate drastically to dangerous levels putting countless lives in jeopardy.

Next time we can do better.  If the city needs help next time the prediction is "Just a Dusting" just call me.

Scott R. Mayorga  A.A.S., BS MT(ASCP)H CLS


LoveANTM said...

This was very well written, and I agree 100% with everything except this statement: "Probably the only leadership exhibited during the Storm and aftermath was by the teachers who cared for and supervised the children at the schools".

You are correct in praising the teachers, they did an outstanding job handling the situation and they should be extremely proud, but there is an addition that should be made to that statement - Michelle Sollicito, the creator and admin of the Facebook group "Snowed Out in Atlanta". She (along with the wonderful citizens of Atlanta who donated their time, money, food, water, shelter, and rescue efforts) is the reason that this storm didn't do more damage to our people in Atlanta than it did. She, and the people of Atlanta, did more to help us all than any city elected officials or rescue teams even dreamed of doing. It was amazing to see how our city pulled together and conquered that horrible situation. And she and her group kept right on going after the storm had passed by updating everyone on the current situation of the roads, helping people find lost loved ones, items or pets, as well as many other things that needed to be done. I believe that first day and night she was up for 36 hours straight working tirelessly within the group to do any and everything possible to help people. The group allowed people stuck in their cars to reach out to those of us who either finally made it home or people who were already at home and tell us what they needed. And members at home were able to offer shelter, food, water or transportation after the people who were stuck gave us their location. It was truly amazing what she did for those people. I'm not exaggerating when I say this but I shudder to think of how differently things would've turned out if it had not been for Michelle's quick thinking and hard work. We are eternally grateful.

Scott Mayorga said...

Thanks for the comment LoveANTM
Although Snowed Out in Atlanta played a role in bringing relief to some stranded motorists during this debacle the main purpose of this post was to make our local leaders aware that they missed some key benchmarks in preparatory stages for the storm.

Yes, I congratulate the process of Snowed Out in Atlanta but that is not a viable alternative to rescue thousands on the road. The key is to adequately prepare for the storm instead of reacting to cries of despair from the side of the road.

Scott M.

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