ATLANTA – With memories of gridlock on icy Atlanta highways still fresh, Georgia officials got a second chance Monday to prove the state could prepare for winter weather. The governor declared a state of emergency hours ahead of the storm, something he didn’t do two weeks ago.
Gov. Nathan Deal was widely criticized for the response to the Jan. 28 storm that paralyzed the metro area after two inches of snow fell. Drivers spent the night in frigid cars, students slept in school buses and thousands of cars were abandoned along highways. Officials reported one accident-related death.
Georgia became the brunt of late-night jokes, and some residents were skeptical the state would be better prepared this time.
“I’m not counting on it. I’ve been in Georgia on and off for 20 years. It’s usually the same scenario, not enough preparations and not enough equipment,” said Terri Herod, who bought a large bag of sand and a shovel at a Home Depot. She said her sister told her to also buy kitty litter in case her car gets stuck on an ice patch.
Atlanta has a long and painful history of being ill-equipped to deal with snowy weather and people were not taking any chances, even though officials promised the response would be different this time.
Several inches of snow and ice were forecast for the northern part of the state. Some schools were already closed Tuesday and snow plows and other equipment were getting ready.
“We’re not looking back, we’re looking forward,” Deal said at a news conference. “The next three days are going to be challenging.”
Even before the first snowflakes, people around Atlanta planned to work from home and stay off the roads. Jay Ali, 33, a college student, said he had little confidence that government officials would handle this storm any better.
“New levels of incompetence,” Ali said, describing the state and regional response to the last storm. “Unforeseen levels of incompetence.”
Ali said part of the problem is that Southern cities do not have as many snow plows, sanders and spreaders as Northern cities.
“I don’t think they have the infrastructure to protect themselves if a storm gets really bad,” he said.
A one-two punch of winter weather was expected. Rain and snow were forecast Tuesday followed by sleet and freezing rain Wednesday. Ice on tree limbs and roads was a major worry for drivers and utility companies.
The National Weather Service issued a winter weather watch until Tuesday evening for northern parts of Georgia and the same watch from Tuesday evening through Thursday for the metro Atlanta area.
Other parts of the South were expected to get hit as well. Alabama, which saw stranded vehicles and had problems similar to Atlanta in the January storm, was likely to get a wintry mix of precipitation. Parts of Mississippi could see three inches of snow late Monday through noon Tuesday. And a blast of snow over a wide section of Kentucky slickened roads and closed several school districts.
During the last storm, Deal didn’t hold his first news conference until hours after highways were jammed.
The governor, a Republican who is up for re-election, and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, took heat from residents, forecasters and even comedians.
Saturday Night Live spoofed an Atlanta storm “survivor,” complete with a thick Southern accent and references to the “Yankee’s slush.” “The sun will rise again,” the character said. After showing television news images of the gridlock, Jon Stewart quipped: “The ice age zombie doomsday apocalypse has come to Atlanta.”
The governor apologized and announced the formation of a task force to develop recommendations on how the state can be better prepared. He also called for various internal and external reviews and wants a new public alert system for severe weather, similar to what’s used for missing and endangered children.
“We are making every effort to be prepared for these events,” Deal said.
Some commuters already planned to stay home Tuesday.
“Basically, everyone from the office is going to be working from home,” said Dakota Herrera as he left a downtown car park on his way to the office.
Some people predicted that Deal and other officials might overreact at the first hint of snow.
“I can only think it will be better because there was a brouhaha,” said Gary Flack, who avoided getting stuck in the last storm by leaving work before the snow started to fall.