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Was Atlanta asleep at the wheel?

By Joe Sterling and Sarah Aarthun, CNN
updated 8:55 AM EST, Thu January 30, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gov. Deal, citing forecasts, said the storm was "unexpected' in the metro area
  • The traffic was so bad, one guy says, that salt trucks couldn't navigate
  • Region doesn't have the capacity to properly treat roads in rare snow events
  • People say poor planning caused the gridlock

Watch Frozen: State Of The South on CNN at 11 p.m. ET Wednesday.

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?

Atlanta is home to the world's busiest airport. To CNN and the Weather Channel. The headquarters of Home Depot and Coca-Cola. The city 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.

Honoré: Mother nature had a vote
Georgia gov.: Forecasts were wrong
Snow storm sleepover at Home Depot

Governor: Blame the weatherman

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 of the city.

"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 said Atlanta had plenty of warning. Myers himself had predicted up to 2 inches of snow would fall, starting sometime 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.

Atlanta mayor: Early city exodus due to snow crippled traffic

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."

Snow and ice freeze traffic for South
A car lies half submerged in the Cahaba River in Mountain Brook, Alabama, on Thursday, January 30. The driver was able to escape before the car slid into the river during a snow storm on Tuesday and was not injured. A wave of arctic air that started over the Midwest and Plains spread to the Southeast, bringing snow, freezing ice and sleet to a region that doesn't deal with such weather very often. A car lies half submerged in the Cahaba River in Mountain Brook, Alabama, on Thursday, January 30. The driver was able to escape before the car slid into the river during a snow storm on Tuesday and was not injured. A wave of arctic air that started over the Midwest and Plains spread to the Southeast, bringing snow, freezing ice and sleet to a region that doesn't deal with such weather very often.
Freezing temperatures sweep U.S.
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Photos: Freezing temperatures sweep U.S. Photos: Freezing temperatures sweep U.S.

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."

Reed gave the city's response a good grade during his sometimes testy exchange with Costello.

"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 replied. "I was one of those people."

Many of those million people who Reed says got out of the city spent the night sleeping in their cars, on the side of the road or in gas station parking lots. Others sought shelter on lounge chairs at area Home Depots or in the aisles of 24-hour CVS stores.

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 said.

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."

The offices of the governor and the mayor confirmed the men were at a luncheon in Atlanta around noon Tuesday, about the time the snowfall began.

Anne Torres, Atlanta's deputy communications director, said Reed accepted an award from Georgia Trend magazine as 2014 Georgian of the Year. The governor's spokeswoman, Sasha Dlugounski, said Deal had been kept up-to-date on conditions and cleared his schedule after the award presentation.

Wednesday night, Reed defended his storm response, noting government officials "have a shared responsibility."

"But, I want to state clearly, I don't have jurisdiction to clear interstate highways in the city of Atlanta," he said. "I'm responsible for the streets that are in the city of Atlanta. And, as of today -- one day into a severe weather event -- we got our streets cleaned. We kept our hospitals open. We kept our people safe, and the city of Atlanta is running again."

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 way 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 inexperience with the snow 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 hadn'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 in it 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 and 40 plows in ATL proper)," Medwed said.

Stranded drivers tell their stories

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, such as in London. But a transportation 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 pointed 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 said, 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, he said.

"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 man quipped on Facebook. "So we may have to survive on food and water for several days."

Stranded in Atlanta

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

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