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 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT