January 28, 2014: a day that will live in Atlanta infamy. Metro Atlanta awakened to what we thought was an average Tuesday and some overblown, distant threat. People went to work and school like normal, though the winter storm warning actually went to effect in the 3 a.m. hour. Many of us know what happened next: Snowpocalypse or Snowmageddon. Pick your poison.
WSB Radio meteorologist Kirk Mellish was clear in his forecasting that day.
“What I remember the most is working from home (before it was cool) here in Kennesaw, on-air, live forecasting snow likely with ‘x’ accumulation, not ‘maybe it will snow maybe it won’t or maybe it will be rain’,” Mellish told the AJC and 95.5 WSB. “While looking out my window, as my neighbors left for work and school buses rolling as usual!”
Regular behavior commenced, despite, “Watches warnings and advisories were posted 24 hours before! This was upgraded at 9:30 the night before - plenty of time for the 10 and 11 p.m. news!” Mellish recalled. The Atlanta weather veteran wisely added, “People didn’t react to the forecast, because the morning drive was cloudy but dry. So I guess most people figured, ‘Well they’re probably wrong and I’ll believe it when I see it, and if I see it I’ll just head home early.’” But Mellish was right and both they and I were dead-wrong.
The commute in Cherokee, Bartow, and Cobb counties went from outstanding to outlandish in the 10 a.m. hour, as drizzle turned to ice and snow. The rest of the metro became a glazy ice rink in the next two or three hours, ensnaring tens of thousands as they attempted to go home early.
I was working solo in the WSB Traffic Center with the late Captain Herb Emory leading reports from his vehicle and home. I thought the worst weather would hit Macon and later in the day. GDOT treated the roads with that same notion and GEMA’s command center didn’t set up until the middle of that fateful day.
In the end, agencies reported over a thousand wrecks on the icy roads. Many simply abandoned their cars and headed for cover. More than a few were stuck on interstates for literally days. Some kids had to spend the nights or long hours at their schools, which then shut down for the rest of the week.
I’ve shared my detailed memories of working in this snowstorm, but I want to visit the points of view of others. These memories (or nightmares) were splashes of cold water to the face.
We edited some messages for clarity and length.
“Henry and I went out to Eddie’s Attic that night. We rode MARTA from East Point, not before I had slowly glided into a mailbox in our neighborhood...Later, we watched cars ice skating from the pedestrian bridge at Fort McPherson MARTA.”
-Lesley Potts via Facebook
Lesley is one of my high school best friends’ mom, so I can just imagine the looks on her and Henry’s faces when they saw the ice skaters. And I can also imagine that they felt very victorious, having taken MARTA that evening, especially after the mailbox mishap.
“I was stuck in my car for over 9 hours going home from my work (like every other ATLien).
The ironic part....I worked at THE WEATHER CHANNEL!!! First week on the job. One would think they could have predicted this better for their employees.”
-Allison Royston via Facebook
Allison is a former co-worker of mine and she, like several of my co-workers, got stuck in transit to or from the job. In fact, I was solo in the WSB 24-Hour Traffic Center from 9 a.m. until about 6 p.m., because other members of our team simply couldn’t get to the station fast enough. Leaving for a destination was too late, once the - snow - hit the fan. And the Weather Channel did publish the warning early in the morning, but that apparently didn’t change the staffing scenarios very much.
Someone else can relate to Allison - getting to work.
“Me: Hey [Name Redacted] I just drove 10 miles in six hours down I-575.
I’m getting off at my brother’s exit before I get stuck.
NR: What time can you be at the station? We need you in ENG!
Me: I’m leaving now...
Me: We seem to have a problem...I only have two wheels on the
NR: So how soon can you get a tow? We need you in editing!
-Daniel Andretta via Facebook
Daniel finally got stuck on the road and his boss just didn’t quite understand the scenario at that point. Like his electronic news gathering department and our Traffic Center, when we needed the most people, the fastest, the least were able to come, the slowest. This is what happens when a state is reactive and not proactive to an emergency.
“I had a car full of cats I was transporting from a rescue to a local vet. Never made it...After six hours, I got home with the crew and ran my own ‘rescue’ for a couple of days. The resident
kitties were quite displeased.”
-Nancy Pihera via Facebook
God bless Nancy’s heart. As owners of a rescue dog and two rescue cats, my wife, Momo, and I thank you for biting the icy bullet not only at home that night but also for six hours in the car! We hope that the home cats finally understood. But they are cats, so probably not.
“I slept under my desk for two days.”
-@2ratiiid via Twitter
“Tried to make it home from work and couldn’t get there. Spent the night in a Kroger.”
-WSB Traffic Team’s Alex Williams
I can relate. I brought one change of clothes to the WSB studios, just in case. But we figured that the station could snag us some hotel rooms if things got bad. But as my wife, the animal nutritionist marketer, reminded me this week - the International Production and Processing Exposition was in town. This is Atlanta’s largest annual convention and the world’s largest in that field.
So I.P.P.E.’s attendees either packed Downtown and Midtown Atlanta hotels or even couldn’t get rooms themselves, because hotel employees also had to spend the night in the storm. Newsies like us had no way of expecting a room, so I slept in different offices for the next four nights, heading home a couple of times for changes of clothes.
But Atlanta has since learned and taken even slight winter weather threats very seriously. The sands of time can wear away that awareness, however, so we need to remember both our mistakes and resilience during one of the most major flops in Atlanta history.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.