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Atlanta's mayor: 'I've gotten the message, loud and clear'

By Tom Watkins, CNN
updated 4:24 PM EST, Fri January 31, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mayor Reed vows to handle any future events differently
  • The last vehicles were being picked up from interstates
  • Mayor says lack of experience played a role
  • Warm weather is doing what government officials could not

Atlanta (CNN) -- A day after Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal apologized for mishandling Tuesday's snowfall, which paralyzed Atlanta and resulted in commutes that exceeded 20 hours for some people, temperatures rose above freezing Friday and the city too busy to hate moved on.

"I've gotten the message loud and clear and I'm going to act like it and do something about it," Mayor Kasim Reed told reporters at the Atlanta Press Club.

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.
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Reed said he would be more aggressive in handling any future events, even if that means using his bully pulpit to persuade others not under his authority to act. "I'm going to publicly say that the city of Atlanta is closing and we believe everybody in the city should close right away, and anybody who doesn't agree, they can take my seat on CNN."

That was an apparent reference to a testy interview Reed had Wednesday with CNN's Carol Costello.

Reed acknowledged that the image of his city has taken a hit in the public eye, but predicted it would rebound. "I think we'll earn it back, day by day, and I'm confident that there will be a severe weather event and we'll be able to show that we have the ability to respond."

On Friday, the last of the more than 2,000 cars that were abandoned when 2.6 inches of snow overwhelmed Atlanta's ability to cope were being picked up by their owners. By Friday morning, only about a dozen were left on interstates and state roads, said Ken Davis, a spokesman for Georgia's Emergency Management Agency.

Government help, which many said was impossible to find in the immediate aftermath of the storm, was available Thursday, when the National Guard and State Patrol offered free rides to abandoned cars, five free gallons of gas and a jump-start.

On Thursday night, the state began towing -- at state expense -- unclaimed cars.

The Atlanta Police Department said it would waive impounding fees for those cars it towed, though it was just one of many agencies dealing with abandoned cars.

By Sunday, the temperature should reach the 60's in parts of the Southeast.

Political aftermath

The governor also vowed to move more aggressively and more quickly before any future storms, even if that means more false alarms.

"I accept responsibility for the fact that we did not make preparation early enough to avoid these consequences," Deal said Thursday. "I'm not looking for a scapegoat. I'm the governor, the buck stops with me."

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Many people spent the night in their cars Tuesday, trapped in the gridlock. Some students were stuck on school buses, others had to shelter overnight in their schools.

GEMA's director apologized for not cranking up emergency operations six hours earlier than he did.

"I got this one wrong," Charley English said.

Reed cited the mass exodus from his city as largely responsible for the gridlock and said the schedule for sending people home should have been staggered.

He acknowledged that a "lack of experience" in dealing with severe weather events in Atlanta played a role.

Monster sprawl

Reed has managerial control over most, but not all, of Fulton County. But greater Atlanta comprises 28 counties with 140 cities and towns sprawled over an area the size of Massachusetts, and Reed does not have administrative power over them.

That needs to change, according to retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who coordinated relief efforts along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

"They need to have in Atlanta the same type of government you have in New York, 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.

Atlanta's transportation system is fragile

Though warmth may have returned to Atlanta, its residents still can't count on a reasonable commute. The city's subway -- called MARTA -- does not reach many areas of the city, so the vast majority of commuters drive. That often means traffic jams during rush hours, which can extend through much of the day.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute's Urban Mobility 2010 study, cited by the Clean Air Campaign, the region is the 12th most wasteful commute in the country. The average Atlanta driver is stuck in traffic for 43 hours per year; that's in addition to his or her normal commuting time, it said.

That translates into a cost to Atlanta commuters of nearly $3 billion per year in time and fuel -- $924 per person, it said.

The average commuting distance is 35 miles in metro Atlanta, and costs commuters $16.45 per day, said the Clean Air Campaign, a not-for-profit advocacy group.

More than four in five commuters (82%) drive alone, it said, citing a 2010 survey carried out for the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Despite those statistics, voters in 2012 turned down a transportation initiative. "Nobody fought harder for funding for MARTA than me during the regional transportation referendum," Reed said Friday.

But, he added, he has transportation improvement in mind, with plans to extend a street car due to come on line this year and to invest in roads, bridges and sidewalks.

CNN's Ed Payne, Vivian Kuo, Holly Yan and Greg Botelho contributed to this report

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