As many of y'all know, I grew up in a little college town by the name of Athens, Georgia. Athens was a really great place in a lot of ways, and a really crappy place in a lot of other ways, but it was in the South and it was about an hour and change’s drive away from Atlanta, so I feel like I should lend a little bit of perspective to all the kibitzing over Atlanta descending into a post-apocalyptic style of chaos over two inches of snow.
First, a story from my childhood. When I was 10 years old, in 1993, my home town and much of the South was hit by a freak snow storm not too dissimilar from the one that recently dusted Atlanta with two inches of white powder, like a careless coke connoisseur. I think we got somewhere between 1 and 3 inches in my part of town, which was a lot of fun to play around in and school was canceled and it was a pretty great time. They called it the “Blizzard of 1993”, because nobody in Georgia has actually seen what a blizzard looks like and nobody could’ve been bothered to look it up in a dictionary.
The “blizzard” was a minor annoyance to my family. We’d moved recently from another small college town in central Illinois, so a couple of inches of snow didn’t really worry us too much, but the people in town freaked right the fuck on out. There wasn’t looting or anything exciting like that, but there were tons of minor car accidents because I guess nobody has the common sense to slow down during snowfall, and the grocery store shelves all over town were laid bare by people stocking up as if the damn world was about to end. Even at the precocious young age of 10, I found this to be hilarious. I still do. So, you have to figure that on some level, that is the scene where this farce that happened in Atlanta a couple weeks ago opens.
So, already, people are thrust into a situation where they’re driving in two inches of unplowed snow and they have never done this in their lives. Common sense can get you pretty far driving outside your comfort zone if you’re a very mindful driver, but most drivers out there are not thinking through their actions with full awareness of the physics of car control. So, an entire city of people, in a city where there isn’t really public transit to speak of and your car is your only real means of transportation, that experiences snow so rarely it doesn’t even have city-wide plans for snow storms like this, it’s only natural that all Hell would break loose. So I am sympathetic to the regular people on the road who ended up stranded in traffic so severe they had to abandon their cars and seek shelter nearby. Maybe some of them were making really stupid decisions on the road and were driving poorly, but it’s hard to expect people to just immediately understand without any practice how to drive on snow. Without snow tires and without chains, driving on snow is a delicate ballet your car has to do with your meaty ham-fists driving the controls of it. Even with a four-wheel drive car with modern traction control systems it’s not always 100% easy to do. Driving on ice is like some kind of really complex and evocative jazz dancing. It’s an acceptance that the laws of physics you learned in high school will apply, and an acceptance that you are not 100% in control. That’s not easy and it’s counterintuitive to drivers who have never driven on ice. So I’m of the opinion that people need to go a little easier on Atlanta drivers.
They should not, however, go easy on their local and state governments. The mayor of Atlanta was out on Twitter ahead of time assuring his constituents his city was prepared for the snow, and it would’ve been hard to disagree with him since the city had recently upgraded its snowplow fleet considerably. Even so, they only had a few dozen plows, which might be enough for a small city, but Atlanta is a massive metropolis that sprawls over 1/3 of the land mass of the largest state on the East Coast. 60 plows may have looked like a lot on paper but it was woefully inadequate for the job of clearing two inches of snow and making Atlanta’s extensive highway system safe for driving on. So, go ahead and imagine the roads in Atlanta, which always have a healthy amount of traffic on them at all times of day, with 60 slow-moving trucks dumped onto them.
Now imagine the schools closing. All around Atlanta, schools started to close as things started to get a little too real. So now in addition to the slow-moving plows, let’s go ahead and add several hundred school buses into that traffic situation. The schools didn’t close in phases, didn’t coordinate among each other to figure out the best time to close with minimal disruption. Of course not; why would they even think of that? Then, following the schools closing, now there are hundreds of thousands of parents of those young students all around the city who have to go home or call a babysitter or otherwise make sure their kids are okay, so there’s now those additional cars on the road all at once. The businesses closing and the employees leaving early could not possibly have coordinated amongst themselves to figure out a better way of doing this, either. So, what could have been done?
Well, the main failing here is that the city of Atlanta bought all these snow plows but didn’t have a clear plan on how to use them. They made the commitment of buying the actual plows and hiring people to maintain and drive them, but what was also needed that I doubt happened is the necessary city-wide planning for closings in advance of heavy, unexpected snowfall and other mishaps. The fact that the decision to close or not was left until the day of the snow, when there was more than adequate warning that 1-2 inches of snow were expected, is simply unacceptable and really a disservice to the people of Atlanta. There was more than enough advance notice of the snow storm, and so the city of Atlanta’s schools should have made the decision the night before if not earlier, to give people enough time to make arrangements and prepare as well. For it all to happen suddenly, all these little failures happened in addition to the expected amount of mayhem on the roads, resulting in a multiplication if not an exponentiation of the chaos that would have been. Thankfully, not too many people got injured and nobody died, so at least there’s that. This was a close call, though, and Atlanta and the state of Georgia governments kind of dropped the ball here.
I hope that Atlanta and Georgia, as well as any other southern cities that were watching this whole situation throw down right next door to them, recognize the lesson here, and endeavor to learn it. When there’s more than a couple millimeters of snow in Chicago, you’d better believe there’s a plan and there’s a hierarchy of folks out there in the city, and brave folks driving snow plows on the highway when inches of powder are still fresh, who are making it happen for us and keeping us safe. Atlanta has now bought itself part of that necessary infrastructure; hopefully now they realize how important the other parts are. Stay warm out there, space cadets.