Mayor Kasim Reed and city officials took the airwaves again Wednesday morning in an effort to defend the city’s storm preparedness and calm residents who remain stranded in an icy gridlock.
Reed and public safety leaders said all Atlanta Public Schools who were trapped on buses have been taken to a “safe place” and said they’ve resolved hundreds of auto accidents city-wide with no fatalities.
His main focus, he reiterated, is helping state leaders rescue the untold number of Atlantans still sitting in gridlock. Reed’s administration oversees Atlanta roads, but not the interstates and major highways.
“What I’m thinking of every moment is how to get people out of their cars,” Reed said, adding he is soon meeting again with Gov. Nathan Deal, the National Guard and the Georgia Department of Transportation.
But Reed also defended the city’s response as vastly improved since an ice storm in 2011 shut down the city for nearly a week and reiterated the biggest collective mistake was closing schools, businesses and government agencies at once.
“If we had not had everyone exiting at the same time and going en route to pick up their children, I don’t believe we would have had the kind of gridlock that has resulted in what people are seeing around the nation.”
The mayor rebuffed a reporter’s suggestion that eyes were on Atlanta alone, noting: “I’m not going to get into the blame game, but the crisis that we are going through is across the region. If you look at anybody’s street in any community across the entire region, there’s no one doing a better job than we are in the City of Atlanta.”
It’s the mayor’s second major press conference since standing with Deal Tuesday night to discuss their coordinated efforts.
Speaking at a late-night press conference, Deal ordered state government shut down Wednesday and urged drivers to stay off the roads paralyzed by snow, portraying the weather as an “unexpected storm” that developed so quickly amid changing forecasts that officials struggled to respond.
And Reed promised transparency while also urging motorists to stay home and let emergency crews respond to stranded drivers. Road crews will treat icy highways and snow-covered streets throughout the night, he said.
Both politicians said they had learned valuable lessons from the 2011 ice storm that brought metro Atlanta to its knees, and that closer coordination and more resources have prevented the gridlock from becoming worse.
“There are certain things we don’t have control over and one of those is the weather. This came rather unexpectedly. The time frame in which it hit was a very short time frame,” said Deal. “And I think we’re better prepared now than we were in 2011.”
Still, to many who had endured the gridlock, the words rang hollow.
Thousands of motorists were trapped on clogged streets deep into the night, turning minutes-long commutes into hours-long affairs. The traffic jams in the storm’s wake also left students stuck in school buses and classrooms across metro Atlanta, and Deal said he’s dispatched state troopers to schools to help.
Atlanta’s mayor, dealing with his second major weather crisis since taking office in 2009, quickly addressed what he saw as the region’s greatest failing: timing.
“The fact of the matter is we do take responsibility for having the business community, government and schools basically leave all at once,” he said. “We created a situation from a traffic standpoint that was very challenging.”
And remains so. More than 12 hours after the storm began to drop snow on metro Atlanta, maintenance crews and emergency responders still couldn’t get passed many clogged streets to clear accidents, rescue stranded motorists and cover icy streets with gravel and salt.
Reed and Deal said getting motorists off the road and home is their top priority, but state officials said they were still trying to determine just how many students were stranded on buses and at schools across the region.
Still, Reed said the response was far better than it was during the 2011 storm. He said crews already had about 70 pieces of equipment on the road - more than first-responders had at the same stage in 2011. And he noted no fatalities had been reported and that entrances to hospitals and fire stations were clear.
“We are coordinating our resources much better than we did in 2011 and we’re going to be out of this much faster as a result,” said Reed.
The governor urged drivers to stay off the streets as ice that’s melting will re-freeze amid plunging temperatures, causing more traffic headaches on Wednesday. He said the National Guard is working to extract “fragile” motorists.
The public’s reaction to the storm and its handling has been constant and intense throughout the day, surging in the late-night hours with criticism during the leaders’ press conference.
Whitney Dozier, a teacher, tweeted that she was frustrated that Deal, Reed and other local officials “let us down once AGAIN.”
Another Twitter user, who writes from the account @warpedelf, said local and state officials “Failed to be prepared” and that the transportation department’s workers “need a public spanking.”
Atlantan Kevin Kiernan, who tweets from an eponymous handle, simply wrote this to the Twitterverse late Tuesday: “Embarrassed for my city.”
Deal, though, pleaded for patience as crews work to unclog roads and stranded commuters slowly make their ways home.
“It is not a simple solution,” Deal said. “I wish we could just wave a magic wand but we have to deal with reality.”