What caused Atlanta’s gridlock traffic jams after snowfall

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ATLANTA (CNN) -- We're a world-class city, Greater Atlanta boasts.

So how did a couple of inches of snow paralyze the country's ninth-largest metro area?

We're home to the world's busiest airport. To CNN and the Weather Channel. The headquarters of Home Depot and Coca-Cola. We hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics. Three major professional sports teams call Atlanta home.

But the city's solid rep is going south, thanks to Tuesday's "rush hour from hell."

There's no easy answer for who's to blame. Rather, it was a perfect storm -- pun intended -- of factors that created the commute of nightmares.

Governor: Blame the weather man

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said the region was caught off guard by weather predictions. During a Tuesday night briefing, the governor called the weather event "an unexpected storm" that hit the metro area. Citing forecasts, he said most of the effects of the storm would be south.

"The National Weather Service continually had their modeling showing that the city of Atlanta would not be the primary area where the storm would hit, that it would be south of Atlanta," Deal said Wednesday. "You've already heard some of our agencies saying that based on that modeling, they had not brought in some of the resources earlier because they thought there were going to be other parts of the state that were going to be more severely impacted than the metropolitan Atlanta area."

"Some of the local meteorologists were more correct on their predictions, that the storm center might be 50 miles north of where the National Weather Service's modeling had indicated that it would be," he said.

CNN meteorologist Chad Myers predicted 1 to 2 inches of snow would fall, starting some time between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m.

"We got 2.3. If that's wrong, then I take credit for being wrong. But at 2.3, when I said 1 to 2, I think that's OK," Myers said.

Mayor Reed: Businesses get some blame

Stuck for hours in traffic, Matthew Holcomb, a vice president of engineering at CNN, said he wants to know, "what was the plan?"

"I mean, two or three weeks ago, the kids were let out of school when it got cold here. Knowing what was coming, I can't believe they didn't have the kids out of school and there wasn't a better plan on the roads."

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed laid part of the blame on local businesses, saying they contributed to the gridlock by letting workers leave at the same time. When the snow started, he said, schools and businesses released people simultaneously, inundating the roads with more vehicles than there was pavement.

"I said immediately yesterday that releasing all of these folks was not the right way to go," Reed told CNN's Carol Costello on Wednesday. "If I had my druthers, we would have staggered the closures."

He gave the city's response a good grade during his sometimes testy exchange the CNN anchor.

"We got a million people out of the city," Reed said. "We have not had any fatalities. We cleared the way of all of our hospitals, all of our police stations."

Costello cut in to say, "Well, I heard this from public officials before, 'We didn't have any fatalities,' but that was just by the grace of God. There were a thousand traffic accidents. People got out of their cars on icy roadways in frigid conditions to walk home."

"That's easy to say from your anchor seat," Reed said.

"No, I was out stuck in the traffic," Costello said. "I was one of those people."

Former Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who coordinated relief efforts along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, did not equivocate in finding fault.

"They need to have in Atlanta the same type of government you have in New York City, where the mayor controls the city and everything around that city, and the mayor can make decisions on road closures; he has emergency powers as when schools close," he told CNN.

The schools and the government should have been closed Tuesday, he said. "I hope the governor and the mayor learn from this that they're going to have to act before these events, not make some symbolic gesture after."

He called their performance "a failure to lead."

Snow induces mass panic in Southern drivers

It's an easy joke made by Northerners. A dusting of snow shuts down an entire city and hapless drivers white-knuckle their steering wheels through a handful of flurries.

But the thousands of people sitting in their cars Tuesday night, watching fellow drivers skid off the road, were in no mood to joke.

Add our inexperience with the white stuff to the lack of necessary equipment and crews to treat the roads, and, well, Tuesday happens.

Holcomb, one of the many stranded drivers, said he hasn't seen a snowplow "or anyone slinging sand."

"I've been on the road for over 16 hours now. I've not seen anybody out," he said. "They've done nothing. I have seen literally hundreds of cars parked on the side of the road. I saw a lady carrying her kid in a blanket down the side of the road. I mean, people going the wrong way on major, major interstates. It's scary stuff."

CNN iReporter Shauna Welling came across dozens of abandoned cars on Wednesday in Sandy Springs, just north of the city. Welling is from Ohio and said she's used to winter weather.

"What I'm not used to is driving it in with 6 million other people on roads that were not prepared for snow," she said. "People from the north think this is funny, but I have never in my life experienced anything like it. It was actually really horrifying."

Myers, the CNN meteorologist, hails from Buffalo, where streets are salted well in advance of a coming storm. But Atlanta doesn't have the capacity for that kind of treatment, he said.

"We simply have never purchased the amount of equipment necessary," he said Wednesday. "Why would you in a city that gets one snow event every three years? Why would you buy 500 snowplows and salt trucks and have them sit around for 1,000 days, waiting for the next event?"

One Facebook post, addressing "Yankees laughing at GA for being shut down by two inches of snow," had an answer for the salt truck issue: The gridlock slowed down the salting, said Robbie Medwed, a 32-year-old Atlanta educator.

"At noon, it started snowing. All of the schools, at once, decided to close without any advance notice around 1:30. It was basically, 'Hey, we're closed now! come get your kids!'"

And around the same time, most businesses closed.

"So that's roughly 5 million people who all got on the roads at the same time, which clearly caused a massive traffic jam. Then, while they're out there, the snow gets worse, turns into slush, and then, eventually, full-on sheets of ice. And, while everyone was in gridlock, they couldn't reload the salt trucks because the gridlock was too thick to navigate back to the salt storage areas (we have 30 trucks & 40 plows in ATL proper)," Medwed said.

A silver lining?

Yvonne Williams, who works on transportation infrastructure projects in Atlanta, said there needed to be a community-wide coalition of first responders ready to take this on.

"If I were a leader for the day, I'd make sure everyone is organized together, preparing for these kinds of emergencies," she said.

Many Atlantans say there needs to be more mass transit and roads.

Public transit, they say, isn't as wide-ranging as it is in other cities, like New York, or overseas, in London. But a transit tax proposal failed recently. Many people just don't want to spend the money to expand the region's MARTA train system.

Liane Levetan, a former Georgia state senator, is one of the many Atlantans who wants more rail and road modifications. She thinks the gridlock could turn out to be a "godsend."

"You've got to have more transportation available. We really are a metropolis now," she said.

She points out that bad traffic is an "everyday situation" Atlantans endure.

"For us to be forward thinking, maybe this will be the catalyst. We're being penny wise and pound foolish. If we want to be growth leaders, people have got to move around," she said.

John A. Williams, a native Atlantan and CEO of Preferred Apartment Communities, has a decidedly different take. Maybe more can be done to improve transportation in Atlanta, but he's not sure there could be enough money to address a problem like this one.

"Every decade, we have a storm like this," he said. "I'm not sure there could be enough money to spend to solve the problems."

And, he says, traffic is a good thing, a solid indicator of growth. In fact, when you weigh the positives and negatives about Atlanta's sprawl and the tightly packed populations in many cities, the region has its pluses.

"Atlanta is a city without natural boundaries, Atlanta has grown greatly in every direction, south, north, east and west. Atlanta has a certain amount of sprawl. It is difficult to serve that sprawl with mass transit," he said. "Atlanta is a city of trees and hills. People don't necessarily want to live in Chicago, highly dense urban environments."

For now, people have to drink up an unfamiliar cocktail of Atlanta traffic and Southern snow.

"Snow in Atlanta, I couldn't make it to the liquor store," one guy quipped on Facebook. "So we may have to survive on food and water for several days."

CNN's Jason Hanna and Christina Zdanowicz contributed to this report


  • Angela Breidenbach

    Well, can’t fix this one. But how about if everyone who drives in these areas that only get snow/ice rarely carried a 50# bag of sand in their trunk. Each stuck driver gets out and tosses the sand. Everyone gets home. Simple, cheap fix for next time.

    Educate the population to carry emergency sand bags in winter like we do in Montana. The sheer volume of sand bags would do wonders in a situation like this. (Most of us carry 2-4 50# bags in our trunks each winter.) It would have cleared the highway…

    Power of the government and media together with an educated public could avoid this next time. Imagine all those people stuck, tossing out the sand on the roads because the radio/TV/and emergency broadcasting systems told them to do so…

    Those photos would be priceless as would the teamwork of the people, government, and media. Teach it now so it’s not forgotten.

    Retailers will love the bump in profits, consumers will love the simple and cheap solution, government will love less expense, and you’ll all be working together to solve the problem instead of placing blame. You can do it. Just start talking about what works.

  • Eric

    What a garbage, lobbyist quote from Mr. Williams. Chicago has sprawl AND a dense urban core. You can have both if you have transit plus a portion of the population that wants to live urban, which there is in Atlanta.

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