Skip to main content

Atlanta's total lack of preparedness

By David Levinson
updated 4:29 PM EST, Thu January 30, 2014
A rare snowstorm left thousands of motorists trapped on Atlanta interstates overnight. "Thank God I walk to work everyday," said <a href='http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1079053'>Doug Simonton</a>, who snapped this photo Tuesday afternoon. A rare snowstorm left thousands of motorists trapped on Atlanta interstates overnight. "Thank God I walk to work everyday," said Doug Simonton, who snapped this photo Tuesday afternoon.
HIDE CAPTION
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from the South
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from Atlanta
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from Atlanta
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from the South
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from the South
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from Atlanta
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from the South
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from the South
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from the South
Stranded in the snow: Scenes from the South
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Levinson: Atlanta area should have been prepared for the weather
  • He says Atlanta gets little snow, but gets weather forecasts. Storm was not a surprise
  • Officials should have kept people off the roads, Levinson says
  • Levinson: Real leaders aren't insecure about risking such decisions

Editor's note: David Levinson is a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Minnesota and director of the Networks, Economics and Urban Systems Research Group, or NEXUS. He has authored or edited several books, including "Planning for Place and Plexus: Metropolitan Land Use and Transport." He is the editor of the Journal of Transport and Land Use. He blogs at Transportationist.

(CNN) -- It's just water.

Of course it is frozen in the form of ice. Driving on ice is a fool's errand. On ice it is hard to stop (or start) moving. On ice, vehicle control is difficult at best. You don't need to be a transportation engineer to know that crashes increase with snow and especially ice, with its reduced friction. The problem is not that Atlanta got snow, but that the snow turned into ice.

Should Atlanta have been better prepared? In retrospect, the answer is obvious. In prospect it should have been as well.

David Levinson
David Levinson

While it's hot in the summer, Atlanta is in the foothills of the Appalachians, not the beaches of the Caribbean. In the past eight decades, it has snowed 4 inches or more 11 times in Atlanta. There are periodic ice storms. According to Weatherspark, the average low temperature in January is 34 degrees F, just above freezing. In other words, half the time in January the daytime low is below 34.

I lived in Atlanta for five years. As a freshman, I remember a cold spell in January 1985, when Ronald Reagan's second inauguration was canceled in Washington because of cold, and Georgia Tech, where I was a student, had a delayed opening because it was 8 degrees. So winter is something that leaders should be aware of in Georgia.

Atlanta does not get as much snow as Minneapolis, my current home, and where we have stared down a polar vortex, and are now blanketed with about 2 feet of snow. Atlanta is certainly not as cold as Minneapolis, where unusually, school was canceled two days this week, and five days this school year, and we now look at ice planet Hoth (where Luke Skywalker and friends were based at the opening of "The Empire Strikes Back") as an improvement. But Atlanta still experiences winter. Atlanta still has access to forecasts from the National Weather Service. This storm was not a surprise.

Blizzard of blame

There are several strategies for dealing with ice storms.

Ice storm chaos in Atlanta
Dude, where's my car?

Officials could have tried to prevent the ice. Unfortunately weather control is not yet very practical.

The city and state could have tried to mitigate the ice. There are many techniques for salting and sanding roads that either prevent ice from forming, melt the ice or make it easier to travel on ice. This requires a fleet of vehicles and drivers that are prepared well before the weather event and that continue to be deployed until the roads are cleared.

The risk is the city and state spend money on preparations for bad weather that does not come. Such spending is standard operating procedure in northern cities such as Minneapolis, where snow and ice are almost guaranteed, but it may not be worthwhile if the ice is infrequent.

Opinion: When 2.6 inches of snow made hell freeze over

Atlanta could have tried to avoid the ice. If officials knew ice was coming (and they should have, the weather forecasts were not highly guarded state secrets), they should have canceled schools and encouraged people to stay home. The risk is you cancel school and it only rains, or the storm changes course. Officials who cancel school, only to see the weather improve, look bad, are considered "fraidy-cats," will be mocked by talking heads and Monday morning quarterbacks, and more importantly will have a harder time making the right decision the next time.

A real leader is not so insecure. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned his city about Sandy despite perhaps being (in retrospect) too conservative in his warnings about Irene.

Is missing a day of school, or working from home instead of the office really the end of the world?
David Levinson

In the end, we should ask: Is missing a day of school, or working from home instead of the office really the end of the world?

Instead what officials in Georgia did was accept the damage (in the form of traffic congestion, crashes, people sleeping in place in their cars and schools instead of at home) caused by the ice. This outcome required no advance preparation or forethought. In fact a debacle of this magnitude required a careful absence of preparation.

Worse, everything shut down at once. Dismissals were not coordinated, exacerbating congestion. In the end though, the main problem was not that everyone left work and school at the same time. The problem was they were all there in the first place.

In the long term, the Atlanta area could do much more to avoid its routine congestion. But in the short term, if you cannot prevent the special congestion caused by the weather, avoid it.

Is weather getting weirder? I don't know.

Is weather getting more predictable? Most definitely. The science is improving, and the measurements are getting more precise, and there are many more of them, all of which make short-range forecasts very accurate. Our politicians should listen to the scientists sometimes.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Levinson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT