What other cities can learn from Atlanta's ice debacle

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Thursday, January 30, 2014 - 9:00am

A rare mix of snow and ice coupled with poor planning and an area highly dependent on cars was enough to shut down metro Atlanta, infuriating residents as the city became a laughing stock to the country.

Drivers stuck behind the wheel for 18 hours. Children were forced to spend the night at schools or on buses. All this because of a few inches of snow.

The finger pointing started almost immediately. Why did this happen? Who's to blame? And could this happen anywhere else?

Some say the whole fiasco could have been avoided if Atlanta had the kind of expansive mass transit that New York boasts, or if it took the better-safe-than-sorry approach that New Orleans during its recent storm.

But Atlanta, of course, is different. The city of 1 million people sits in a metro area of 6 million. The greater Atlanta area spans 28 counties over an area the size of Massachusetts, and has 140 cities and towns -- most of which have their own leaders making their own decisions.

Here we comb through the claims and realities so Atlanta -- and cities like it -- can learn in the future.

CLAIM: This could have been avoided if Atlanta had a mass transit system like Boston's or Chicago's.

Both Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal put much of the blame on the fact that everyone -- from government, businesses and schools -- all tried to go home at the same time.

"I said immediately yesterday that releasing all of these folks was not the right way to go," Reed said Wednesday. "If I had my druthers, we would have staggered the closures."

REALITY:

The problem highlights the city's extreme dependence on cars. While Atlanta has a commuter train system, the vast majority of its infrastructure involves roads. It does not have other forms of public transportation like Chicago's elevated train or the subways of Boston and New York.

This week's debacle is also disturbing because if another catastrophe were to hit and roads were the only path of transportation, Atlanta would be in the same situation.

But there's little appetite for expanded mass transit in Atlanta. A transit tax proposal recently failed, as many residents just don't want to spend the money to expand the region's commuter train system.

"Every decade, we have a storm like this," said John A. Williams, a native Atlantan and CEO of Preferred Apartment Communities. "I'm not sure there could be enough money to spend to solve the problems."

He added that traffic can be a good thing -- a solid indicator of growth.

CLAIM: This was an "unexpected storm," and Atlanta didn't play it safe like New Orleans did this week

As thousands of Atlanta commuters sat motionless on interstates Tuesday night into Wednesday, Georgia's governor said the path of the storm caught officials off guard.

"We have been confronted with an unexpected storm that has hit the metropolitan Atlanta area," Deal told reporters late Tuesday night.

He said as of 10 a.m. ET Tuesday, "it was still, in most of the forecasts, anticipated that the city of Atlanta would only have a mild dusting or a very small accumulation, if any, and that the majority of the effects of the storm would be south of here. Preparations were made for those predictions."

REALITY:

The National Weather Service put the entire Atlanta metro area under a winter storm warning at 3:38 am Tuesday morning. The agency warned of 1 to 2 inches of snow accumulation and said it would begin "as early as mid-morning and last into tonight."

CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said Atlanta had plenty of warning. Myers himself had predicted up to 2 inches of snow would fall.

In reality, just over 2 inches of snow landed in Atlanta. While that's nothing for most Northern cities, it can be a huge burden for Southern cities that don't have the same amount of equipment.

The New Orleans area, which was also hit with snow and ice this week, decided to play it safe by closing certain roads.

But many residents questioned such decisions by state and parish officials. Some drivers said they couldn't see any signs of ice or treacherous conditions, CNN affiliate WWL said.

CLAIM: Atlanta didn't pre-treat the roads the way Buffalo (and many Northern cities) do

It was a common refrain from drivers who sat more than 10 hours on Atlanta roads -- where are the salting trucks?

Ashley McCants half a day in her car before she gave up , got out and carried her son 2 miles to a stranger's house, where she could stay the night.

During those 12 hours, she didn't see a single salting truck or snow plow.

"It was disheartening," McCants said. "I felt like everyone knew this was coming."

She said the amount of snow "was not that horrible." But "Atlanta was not prepared for it."

REALITY:

While many pointed their fingers at the mayor, it's actually the state that is responsible for maintaining interstates -- where much of the gridlock occurred.

Nonetheless, "the City of Atlanta began preparing for the inclement weather at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning," according to a statement from the mayor's office Wednesday. "The City's Department of Public Works crews have been working 12-hour shifts to pre-treat priority roads and bridges with 30 spreaders and 40 snow plows."

The Georgia Department of Transportation commissioner said crews had been deployed farther south, but then scrambled closer to Atlanta as the storm got under way.

But clearly the efforts weren't enough.

Myers, who is originally from Buffalo, said streets there are salted well in advance of a coming storm. But Atlanta doesn't have the capacity for that kind of treatment.

"We simply have never purchased the amount of equipment necessary," he said. "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?"

-- CNN's Joe Sterling, Sean Morris and Carol Costello contributed to this report.

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