Thursday, January 30, 2014

What We Got Right And What We Got Wrong

Don't like the weather in Atlanta? Wait five minutes. In a week where there were few laughs, as we hit 65 this weekend and roll around in shorts, we would do well to remember that old joke.

But humor aside, we all learned some harsh lessons this past week. And by everyone, I mean everyone. Everyone made mistakes - from employers who gambled they could get a full days work out of their employees to the Governor, who for reasons he has yet to explain, did not fully mobilize following that early morning warning from the National Weather Service to the national media who do not understand "Atlanta" is more than a dot on the map.

Hopefully, once the sensationalism dies down, we will have an honest conversation about everything that went wrong.

Let me be clear about a few things first.
  • The National Weather Service absolutely got the forecast right. I have nothing but admiration for this sometimes beleaguered agency. I would trust them with my life.
  • Once the warning was made at 3:55am Tuesday morning, state and local leaders made a series of calamitous decisions. One more important than all of the others
  • The national media continues to conflate how much warning we received and what "Atlanta" is and this is the reason we continue to wallow in the blame swamp.
Let's start with the forecast issue.

Nathan Deal made an unfortunate word choice in his first storm press conference, calling the storm "unexpected". Of course he was wrong. The National Weather Service and other weather outlets had warned Georgia of an impending event since the previous Saturday. But he wasn't completely wrong. Prior to 3:00pm on Monday, no weather service indicated north of I-20 would be hit with any more than a dusting and any icing problems would happen Tuesday night (and this did happen just as predicted but by then it was too late).

That the nexus of the disaster hit north of I-20 is a critical fact which plays into any analysis and has been mostly ignored.

Reviewing the weather discussion from the NWS, all indications prior to Monday evening show the focus of the storm being south of I-20. It was Monday evening before Fulton County was upgraded from a Winter Watch to an Advisory*. The last thing most people saw before they went to bed was 1-2 inches of accumulation in Fulton County but the worst of the storm still far to the south.

It should be noted, the one service that made explicit warnings on Monday afternoon was Accuweather. Vice President Mike Smith is rightly furious that no one listened. But the government doesn't listen to a private company, they rely on the National Weather Service.

In addition to the standard warnings, government leaders received two briefings from the NWS and they are telling. The Monday 3:00pm briefing included the statement "significant travel problems across much of central and some of north Georgia including parts of the Atlanta Metro area". The next briefing was at 9:00am the following morning and it was far more explicit, but as we now know, the die was already cast.

At 3:55am, everything changed. The NWS issued a Winter Warning and its details were rather explicit. Instead of snow starting midday to midafternoon, it would start at 9:00 am and the conditions would deteriorate as we went into the afternoon.

This is a crucial point for two reasons: National media (and some local partisans) keep saying we had days of warnings this would happen (not true for the northern suburbs) but starting at 3:55am, local officials had definitive warning and how they acted after this was critical.

Once a warning was in hand, several critical decisions were not made, and few of them involve the man taking the brunt of the blame - Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Circumstantial evidence indicates the critical decision was made by Fulton County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa. Despite the explicit warning earlier that morning and the more dire warning by Accuweather 12 hours earlier, he chose to send kids to school.

This may have been the domino that started the chain. Instead of a significant portion of the population staying home to care for young people, they went to work. And when the crisis was rapidly approaching its peak, those children were desperately trying to get home. And parents were desperately trying to get to them. Instead of no trips because everyone was safe in their warm houses, parents had to attempt what amounted to an extended drive with two destinations instead of just one - or none.

At the state level, no one seems sure what happened at GEMA (Georgia's Emergency Management Agency). Based on local reports, its website was not updated with warnings until later in the day. And WSB-TVs Lori Geary reported the command center was quiet on Tuesday morning. Lack of warning may have given false confidence to the business community. Would you risk an entire day's revenue if the state agency in charge of emergencies did not appear concerned?

Later that evening GEMA head Charley English admitted the center was not fully activated until 4:00pm. When asked why, he gave the mind-boggling response that conditions were not serious at that point. It is apparent that, if not ignored, the NWS warning earlier that morning was not given the attention it needed.

As the crisis built, where were the most visible leaders of the region and the state? Governor Deal and Kasim Reed were at an award luncheon at noon - around the same time, over a million people decided to escape the city.

This shows an appalling lack of awareness and both may pay a price politically. Mayor Reed was quick to defend that he had trucks working at 9:00am that morning and he is no doubt right. But he's also a smart enough politician to understand you don't graciously accept meaningless awards at a rubber chicken lunch when the city is teetering on chaos.

But of all the things that went wrong, here's where Mayor Reed is right. The city streets were relatively clean. Unlike 2011 when the inner city was paralyzed for four days, Atlanta itself had streets working throughout the crisis and in under 24 hours was still a functioning city.

Ironically, that may be the reason things went so horribly wrong. People were able to get out of the city grid and onto the freeways and here is where hope was lost.

As the news became national, video proliferated of "Atlanta". I-75 into Cobb and the northern arc of the perimeter were shown on a continuous loop. The problem is neither is actually in the city of Atlanta.

To those of the outside world, "Atlanta" is a dot on a map. To those of us who live here it can mean as far south as Stockbridge and as far north as Jasper. As Atlanta Magazine's Rebecca Burn's noted, neither is actually the City of Atlanta.

And because the national media never provided this important context, the weather forecasters can rightly say they predicted the situation while never noting they didn't predict it for the northern suburbs until very late in the game. And the national media can continue to beat up on Kasim Reed when he had exactly zero to do with state highways traversing north Fulton and Cobb.

It continues today. We are all Atlanta. Until the crisis passes and for the remainder of the year, we back into our respective corners and get very little accomplished in solving our traffic problems.

And here is the ultimate lesson from that horrid 24 hours - we didn't have a weather problem. We had a traffic problem. As I indicated in the Peach Pundit Daily ( you can subscribe here ), we have no effective means of rapidly evacuating Atlanta. Emotional terror of not being able to reach your stranded child is inconceivable - actual terror with the possibility of substantial loss of life is exponentially worse.

Once the blame storm has passed, we have some hard questions to ask and they should center around the short term, why do we not have an effective evacuation plan, and long term, will we ever seriously examine why our transportation system is our greatest flaw.

*I'm a bit of a weather geek and even I made the mistake of saying the NWS "downgraded" us to an Advisory Monday night. Advisory is an upgrade. But ask yourself this, if a weather geek can get this confused, how many other people went to bed that night thinking it would be a non-event? Another problem is the way the NWS communicates and this should be reviewed. More emphasis should be placed on impact instead of vague nomenclature and the state should have an Emergency Response Meterologist for times like this.